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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.