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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear