Losing our religion

Who knows about classics and the Bible these days?

Jeremy Paxman observes that during his 16 years as host of University Challenge, he has found that contestants "know less and less about classics and the Bible, and more and more about science and computing".

Who can doubt it? But this modern lack of awareness of two fields that were regarded as essential to a good education for so long is little noted -- even though it must count as one of the greatest transformations in our culture in the past half-century.

When Enoch Powell made his infamous "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he could have assumed that the wider audience would know that the quotation was from Virgil's Aeneid (Mary Beard analyses the reference brilliantly here).

Similarly, Tony Benn could still be certain that a sizeable number of his potential readers would understand why he titled his 2004 memoir Dare to be a Daniel; that they would be aware of the Old Testament prophet of that name, if not necessarily the Salvation Army hymn.

But that would have been the older proportion. For younger browsers, the first Daniel to come to mind would probably be the Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. Benn acknowledges as much in his book: "I often forget that few people now have a biblical background or knowledge of the different Christian traditions. Biblical and religious references that slip into my speeches and articles are not necessarily always understood."

To lament the passing of these corpuses of knowledge out of the realms of popular discourse and their retreat into the citadels of scholars is not to make any comment about levels of religious belief: after all, a classical education was never intended to encourage consultations with oracles or sacrifices to Zeus. It is, instead, to mourn the breaking of a connection with millennia of history, references to which were the common currency of art, literature, music and even conversation.

Is speech the poorer for our no longer being able to assume familiarity with the works of Homer and the precise gradations of office in the Roman senate? Yes, I think so. More serious, though, is that a proper understanding of much of the fine art produced in Europe over the past 2,000 years is simply not possible without knowledge of the Bible. This not just about the subject matter, but about the positioning of people, objects, shadows -- all allusions lost on those unversed in Christianity.

Likewise, the joys of Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem are severely impaired if one does not know why, as the countertenor aria has it, "He was despised, despised and rejected", or what the sounding of the trumpets in the "Dies Irae" -- the Day of Judgement -- are heralding. Questions of rights, philosophy, the existence of evil -- all these matters are frequently approached afresh, which may be a good thing in itself. What is less commendable is the latter-day ignorance about the Christian and classical thinkers who spent long decades pondering and writing about them. There just might be something to be learned there.

I am not suggesting that all need attain the easy expertise in the classics of a Boris Johnson or the ability to cite Old Testament chapter and verse possessed by my late grandfather, a Methodist who frequently spent a good couple of hours debating scripture on the doorstep when Jehovah's Witnesses came to call. But for these vast libraries to slip from the mind within a generation or two, and for no one to call "Stop!" and urge us to consider what we are losing, feels like carelessness of monumental proportions.

Does it really not matter that we no longer know what, until very recently, our ancestors took for granted?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.