A statue of the victor of Bannockburn outside Stirling Castle. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert
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The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom.

No one knows where exactly the Battle of Bannockburn was fought. Historians and archaeologists disagree. Some say the killing was done on the low flatland, or “carse”, where the Bannockburn flows into the River Forth; others say the higher ground, now covered in housing schemes, is more likely. We do know where Robert the Bruce planted his standard and set up his command post. It’s a few raised acres from where he would have been able to see everyone’s comings and goings. It was much more wooded 700 years ago, and Bruce and his men had spent months in the woods, training and preparing for the day the English appeared.

The site is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It’s a national monument with a visitor centre and a clutter of memorials. I went there for the first time last September, at the invitation of the NTS. Finding the place was tricky; I had to cycle through housing schemes with speed bumps and corner shops. The site of the critical moment in Scotland’s history, when it secured its independence and confirmed its national identity, is hidden in plain view, sharing a driveway with a budget hotel. It’s not so much a place as an idea, of course. An attitude. I can’t recall how small I was when I first heard the name “Bannockburn”.

Seven or eight poets had been invited to this meeting, which was almost the last to be held at the visitor centre. It is now being demolished to make way for a new one. The new centre – we were shown the plans – will feature vernacular Scottish architecture, with snecked rubble walls, and will be constructed from local materials.

Inside, loud and interactive displays with moving figures will give visitors some small sense of the realities of medieval warfare. There will be plenty of “interpretation” and visitors will be reminded of Bannockburn’s crucial place in Scottish history. Public information will amplify the site’s resonances: freedom, resistance, triumph against the odds. Then, ears ringing and passions raised, visitors will go outside into the quiet, fresh air and make their way up the incline to the place where Robert the Bruce set his standard, and where stands a statue of him in battledress, mounted on a magnificent war - horse, staring defiantly south.

The area is laid out as parkland, with aven - ues of trees, and it is used as such by local people. Casual paths lead to the nearby housing estates; dogs are walked around the monuments. Aside from the statue, which stands a few yards off, there is another construction, which we learned to call “the rotunda”. It was this rotunda that concerned us poets.

It is a circle defined by a wall ten feet high, which encloses the very ground where the Bruce raised his flag. There are two wide gaps in the wall, orientated to frame vistas north and south. To frame vistas and concentrate the mind. North, the gap frames Stirling Castle on its rock, four miles away. This was Edward II’s objective. Had Stirling Castle been taken, Scotland would have fallen. That said, the road north was also Robert’s escape route. Apparently he didn’t know until the last moment whether he would engage or not and he had his getaway planned. The other gap looks south, over lower land, whence Edward’s army came with a wagon train 20 miles long.

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men. The Bannock - burn itself looks a small thing, but it’s a tributary of the Forth, and tidal. Across two days in June 1314, it filled with English dead. The historian Fiona Watson gave us a talk. “It was a disaster for the English,” she said. “Everyone in England would have known someone killed at Bannockburn.”

It was raining lightly as we made our way up to the rotunda. The land is not high – nothing compared to the splendid Ochil Hills a few miles north-east, but high enough to give a sense of landscape, of weather. From this point you can survey the same land as the Bruce did, if you can imagine away the traffic hum and houses. Surmounting the rotunda is an oak beam, which continues over the gaps to form an unbroken circle.

It was this beam that concerned us poets. The rotunda was built 50 years ago and the intention then was to carve an inscription on its inner face, but no inscription was ever made. However, with the anniversary and refurbishment of the monuments, the NTS was taking the opportunity.

Each poet was invited to submit an inscription; these would be made available on the NTS website so the public could voice an opinion. Then a panel of literary and NTS people would meet to choose one to be engraved on the monument.

We huddled in the rain, seeking shelter from the wind under the wall of the rotunda, and began to think about Bannockburn. It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect. What sort of gesture to make, what to say? In what language? In what tone? It needn’t mention the battle; it’s long over, and besides, the visitor centre will take care of all that. In my opinion, it needed something forgiven and forgiving, modern, aspirational, welcoming, mature, gracious – and Scottish, and all in a few short lines. The restored rotunda will be unveiled in 2014, which may or may not be another defining year in Scotland’s history.

It’s no surprise that 2014 is the year the SNP has chosen for the independence referendum. Perhaps they imagine that the anniversary of Bannockburn will arouse a claymore sentiment; that events of the 14th century will affect people’s brains. In some fantasy, they perhaps imagine the “independence” debate is akin to that gory feudal battle, which happened somewhere between a bog and a housing scheme, under the A91.

Neither is it a surprise that the NTS, in liaison with the Scottish Poetry Library, would recruit contemporary poets to the Bannockburn task; the association between poetry, song, national identity and historical and political moments is still acknowledged in Scotland. In fact, the writers and artists insist on it. It is a cherished half-truth that the success of the 1997 devolution bill was achieved partly by the work of writers and visual artists. In the years between the 1979 devolution referendum, which failed, and the one in 1997, Scotland invigorated itself, not in flag-waving but in self-interrogation and self examination. It was a vibrant time, culturally speaking. In 20 years a whole generation of Scottish novelists “wrote themselves out of despair”. It is often stated that this refreshed cultural autonomy played a part in securing political autonomy. The Scottish Parliament, suspended in 1707, reconvened in 1999. And now we are gearing up for an independence referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

It is a truth sometimes missed south of the border that many Scots distrust the Scottish National Party, including plenty who voted for it last time, and many of Scotland’s writers and artists. We know this because they say so openly. A few of the poets gathered at Bannockburn for that meeting are also represented in a new book called Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence.

The book was edited by Scott Hames of Stirling University. Hames conceived of his book because of the poverty he detected in the present “debate” about independence. He noted the politicians’ apparent lack of interest in the culture that brought them to Holyrood in the first place. In the introduction he writes: “Before the party machines and newspapers settle the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking about what ‘independence’ means in and for Scottish culture.”

To do that thinking, he turned to 27 poets, novelists and playwrights. All have stated their case, vented their spleen, imagined what kind of Scotland they want and don’t want, decried the Scotland we already have. Most are old enough to have been around during the devolution campaigns of the 1990s. Some are incomers to the country, from England or Australia or elsewhere. The editor himself is Canadian.

So it was an interesting time for some of us, to compose a bit of “culture” for this great national monument, and also to contribute to a book which claims that “the political significance of these writers’ work is also at stake in the deepening of the conflation that equates Scottish identity with nationalism”.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”. Or anything else. We can boot them out. In an independent Scotland we could boot out any government that failed us. Imagine! It is not a contradiction to write an inscription for a monument that valorises Scottish resistance and identity, then vote Yes for independence but still hold the SNP in suspicion, not least because it is seeking to appropriate that Bannockburn spirit of resistance.

Several of the writers in Unstated make the same point. They will vote for an independent Scotland because they cannot see any other way to preserve the vestiges of our collectivism, and our cherished public services. We want to vote for common decency and our own maturity. An awful lot of English and Welsh people feel that way, too. We used to be able to make common cause with them through the labour and even communist movements. But not now. So, more in sorrow than in anger, many Scots will vote Yes.

In certain ways, in certain quarters, the country is behaving as if it were already in - dependent. Some people are testing out the shape of the new state, and the people’s relationship with it, even before it exists.

Take this example. In 2010, a mere two years ago, a new arts funding body came into being. Creative Scotland took the place of the old Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. It was a Holyrood invention, initiated by Labour and then embraced by the SNP when it won its majority in 2011. You’d think, with those impeccable credentials, that Scottish artists and writers, those truculent upholders of cultural autonomy, would like it – albeit grudgingly. Conversely, you’d think that the Scottish arts funding body would know that the country’s artists are a gallus crew, who had thought deeply about culture, nationhood and autonomy. But no.

While some of us were getting rained on at Bannockburn and beginning to think again about just those issues, our fellow poet Don Paterson published an essay in the Herald newspaper last September. It was his con - tribution to Unstated. He had chosen not to address “independence”, at least not directly. His essay concerned Creative Scotland, and it became the opening salvo, or rather, the first swing of the broadsword, against that corporate body.

The chief executive of Creative Scotland was Andrew Dixon, who came from the NewcastleGates head Initiative and, before that, the Arts Council of England. Its director of creative development was Venu Dhupa, late of the British Council. They answered to Fiona Hyslop, the minister for culture. Paterson called their organisation a “dysfunctional ant-heap”, among other things. Among artists, dismay and alarm had been shared anecdotally for about a year, but soon things started moving. Within three weeks of Paterson’s essay, an open letter had been drafted and sent to Sir Sandy Crombie, the chair of Creative Scotland. The letter was signed by 100 artists (which figure soon rose to 400 once it went online). The signatories included Booker and Turner prizewinners, theatre directors, the Master of the Queen’s Music, poets, novelists, sculptors. Creative Scotland got a fright, as did Hyslop.

The letter deplored the body’s “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture”. It took exception to its impenetrable marketingspeak and noted that funding decisions were seemingly being taken by people with no knowledge of the art form in question. What it did not say, overtly, was that Scottish artists resent being treated as a business proposition. We are not a “cultural industries sector” that requires “investment” in accordance with a quango’s corporate strategy.

Behind Creative Scotland lies the Scottish government, led by the people Scott Hames calls “the electoral beneficiaries of a cultural mobilisation”. That cultural mobilisation was conducted by many of the same artists and writers now weighing in against the new Creative Scotland. Mass meetings of artists were held and committees were convened to discuss writers and artists’ objections. The most recent part of the campaign was the publication of a beautiful postcard. Printed on it was a “constitution”. A constitution on a postcard! Though unsigned, it was written by Don Paterson and the first lines are these:

We, the Scottish people, undertake
To find within our culture the true measure
Of the mind’s vitality and spirit’s health;
To see that what is best in us is treasured . . .

Both Dixon and Dhupa resigned after the artists’ backlash.

This is where it gets curious. You don’t bring down a quango with a constitution. But one looks through the quango to the political attitudes behind it. In this case, the artists were reaching beyond their inchoate funding body to the Scottish government itself and saying to Holyrood: listen, we writers and artists did not maintain cultural autonomy for 30 or 300 years, and achieve a devolved government, only to have that government treat us as a “sector” in its tour - ism promotions and business ventures.

Hitherto, Creative Scotland has demanded endless “celebration” from artists. Its Panglos - sian “Year of Creative Scotland” is over now, but has only been replaced by another government initiative: the Year of Natural Scotland, which requires artists again to “promote and celebrate”. The SNP’s website declares it is “committed to putting culture at the heart of our plans to develop Scotland’s overall prosperity”. Scottish Labour notes the nation’s creative talent and wants to “capitalise on this potential to become world leaders in the creative industries”. Alas for them, the country’s artists are not so keen to be national cheerleaders, or to be treated as means to economic ends.

The idea with the postcard was that you signed the back, maybe appended a message, and sent it to Fiona Hyslop. Hyslop is an SNP minister. Whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, there still will be a Bannockburn spirit in Scotland – a truculent bloody-mindedness. Her party may regret invoking it, when it starts arriving by the sackload on its doormat.

When I was writing my poem-inscription, I went back to Bannockburn alone, just to get a feel for the place and its relationship to the surrounding landscape. It’s not a spectacular site, just a flattened knoll, but the land seems to wheel around it and Bruce and his men would have been able to see what was coming. I went early in the morning while no one else was there other than a woman talking on her mobile as her dogs gambolled under the statue.

At the foot of the slope, cranes and workmen had arrived to begin the demolition of the old visitor centre and the building of the new. It will be ready, and the monuments polished up, in time for a grand reopening in 2014. There will be a re-enactment, God help us, which I presume the Scots will win, but no one will be killed.

As for the Union, that may or may not survive the referendum later next year. I won’t be laying any bets, but even if the vote is No my hunch is that the issue will return. The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent poetry collection is “The Overhaul” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”