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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.