Rush to judgement

Richard Dawkins should be wary of presuming to judge who is a genuine Christian and who isn't.

Jesus's most prominent opponents, the Pharisees, spent a great deal of time and energy telling their contemporaries who was and who was not a true Israelite.

Working on the Sabbath? You're not in. Mixing with the unclean? You're out. Not tithing your dill and cumin? You fail. Jesus himself was repeatedly faced with the same accusation. He couldn't possibly be a real Israelite, let alone a true prophet. Just look at what he did.
There is a pleasing irony, in the light of this, that the recent story about how many real Christians there are in Britain should emanate from Professor Richard Dawkins.

According to new research, commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and conducted by Ipsos/ MORI, a lot of nominal Christians in Britain are, well, nominal. Despite the fact that 72 per centof people ticked "Christian" in the 2001 census, only 54 per cent did in the Dawkins survey, and only 28 per cent of those did so "because they believe in the teachings of Christianity".

In actual fact, even seasoned religion watchers have been surprised by some of the results of the survey - not by how low they are but how high. Is it really the case that 44 per cent of "census Christians" believe that Jesus was "the Son of God, the Saviour of Mankind"? Or that 71 per cent think he "came back to life"? Or that nearly a third believes he was physically resurrected? Or that two-thirds think that the Bible is "a perfect" or at least "the best" guide to morality we have today? I would not have imagined the figures were so high.

The precise details of the survey aside, saying who is and who is not "really" Christian is a parlous business. Church history is littered with the corpses of those who weren't really Christian, at least according to others who judged them so. Passing judgement on another's religion is hazardous.

The Dawkins survey places great weight on what people believe and practise, over and above how they self-identify. He rightly implies that people who don't know much, believe much or do much in the name of their religion aren't really very religious (although the exact number who are so totally disengaged is very small).

Yet how you choose to identify yourself does matter. Several years ago I conducted some in-depth interviews with groups of people all of whom would have fallen into Dawkins's "not real" category. They were vague about their beliefs, never went to church and knew precious little about Christianity. Half, however, were census Christians and half were not.

The difference was not only noticeable but visceral. The census Christians were generally sympathetic and supportive of Christianity, in particular its role in moral formation and in public life, whereas the others were hostile to the point of being venomous. What you called yourself clearly did make a difference.

We would all do well to remember this when we feel like making windows into people's souls. Questions of whether someone is truly Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or, for that matter, secularist or humanist are rarely straightforward and to categorise the world into those who are the real deal and those who are not is to do a disservice to the sheer messiness of human nature.

Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, the theology thinktank.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser