Atheists for Jesus!

If even Richard Dawkins is a “cultural Christian”, why don’t we guard this heritage more carefully?

For me, possibly the saddest part of The Faith of Generation Y, a Church of England-produced book that came out last week which details how little most people born after 1980 know about Christianity, was this. Pop songs are now increasingly played at funerals, it says, "because the young congregation did not know any hymns".

Historically, English music has been slightly embarrassed about its failure to produce a world class classical composer - a Beethoven, a Verdi, a Debussy, or a Liszt, say - on a par with those our continental cousins can boast. The closest we come is Elgar, and magnificent though much of his oeuvre is, the whiff of imperial bombast about him has made us ambiguous advocates of the great Edwardian.

Where we are almost unmatched, however, is in our church choral tradition. Going back to William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, right up to John Taverner and John Rutter today, the glories of our cathedral, college and many parish choirs have more than made up for the lack of - perhaps diverted the energies that might otherwise have gone into - the opera house culture common in Germany and Italy.

If the anthems of the choristers are the sophisticated high-end, the hymns are the sturdy yeomen that bear the weight of this tradition. Not only do Hymns Ancient and Modern or the Methodist Hymnal contain many fine, lusty tunes (especially compared to the Teutonic stodge of Lutheran chorales), but also superbly stirring words, such as John Bunyan's "Who Would True Valour See" - "Hobgoblin nor foul fiend can daunt his spirit, he knows he at the end shall life inherit" - as well as the almost hilariously militaristic: "Christian dost thou see them, On the holy ground? How the hosts of Midian, prowl and prowl around. Christian up and smite them" etc.

To lose this corpus - if the survey does not suggest it is already too late - would be to let go of a rich seam in our history, culture and literature, as I have pointed out before. Hymns are a good marker for this transformation, for singing them does not necessarily involve any religious feeling or reflection, nor is it only Christians who would mourn their passing.

The philosopher and atheist, Mary Warnock, for instance, was once described by Melanie Phillips as a "passionate despiser" of religion (as well as "one of the most titanic and dangerous egos of our troubled age") but she devotes a significant part of her recent book, Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics, to her affection for Christianity. This is partly the music associated with it. She quotes the composer Howard Goodall as saying: "Christianity has had a considerable if not decisive influence on the music of Western Europe - in some respects it is our music's midwife", and spends two pages discussing Bach's St Matthew Passion. But, she also writes: "Religion may not be necessary, but it may be good... not only children but all of us learn through stories, and the stories of the New Testament may teach morality as nothing else can, in vivid and memorable form... Though Christianity may not be necessary to morality, indeed may often stand in its way through undue dogmatism, yet it can be a rich source of morality all the same."

Perhaps this is a matter of generation, for 86-year-old Warnock's near contemporary (in fact her junior by seven years), and fellow philosopher, Sir Anthony Kenny, takes a similarly friendly view of religion - even though when he married his wife in the 1960s, as a laicised Catholic priest unreleased from his vow of celibacy, he was officially excommunicated, which is rather drastic in anyone's book.

I interviewed Kenny when his memoir, What I Believe, was published a few years ago, and noted that although an agnostic, in it he thanked "the Christian communities who have allowed me to join in their worship without acknowledging their authority". His reply:

"I don't think as an agnostic one wants to jettison a whole religious tradition that has offered so much to literature and art and philosophy. One could take the traditional statements about God and the history of salvation not as a literal narrative but as forms of poetry." He acknowledges that this would not satisfy a believer -- "but I don't think it's a great downgrading of the value of religion, because I think framing one's life within a poetic narrative is important".

Even the much younger Richard Dawkins, whom many suspect of being against anything that smacks of religion (he can shoulder some of the blame for this misleading impression having gained currency, I think), is sympathetic to this view.

"This is historically a Christian country," he said in a BBC interview in 2007. "I'm a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I'm not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history."

If such distinguished atheists and agnostics as the three I quote can see something valuable in the Christian traditions and culture that are part of this country's heritage, why is it that opposition to religion seems to focus so often on the outward manifestations and rituals that need hardly involve any theological discussion or commitment - such as daily acts of worship in schools or Christmas Nativity plays?

Hymn-singing most definitely comes into this category. Perhaps there are those who will cheer the fact that the survey I mention above indicates it has nearly died out among those under 30. For others who do not believe in the Christian God, but cherish the traditions that have been associated with that faith in this country, this represents the vanishing of what was a common and important bond until very recently. They may be glad that rationalism has triumphed over belief (if it is that, rather than indifference or ignorance). But if this supposed gain has been accompanied by the loss of such a glory, it is surely a dismaying case of finding the baby gone when the purpose was only to remove the bathwater.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war