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Britain’s hidden religion

In last week’s NS a host of distinguished writers debated what place God should have in our society.

A little while ago I telephoned Professor Antony Flew at his home in Reading. The philosopher once described as “the world’s most famous atheist” was having his lunch. Could I call back later? When I did, however, the great man was not exactly forthcoming. “Professor Flew,” I began, “I wonder if you would be willing to be interviewed for the New Statesman?” “I am old and decrepit,” replied the prof, “but my mind is still sharp. So my answer is no.” Click, brrrr.

The reason for Flew’s refusal, and his brevity, was not some curious dislike for the NS. The answer lies in the designation above. He may once have been described as “the world’s most famous atheist”, but no more. Flew caused a stir – made news around the world, in fact – in 2004, when it was reported that he now believed in God. There had already been rumours of his “conversion” three years previously, which he denied with a response titled: “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still an atheist!” This time they were confirmed.

New scientific discoveries persuaded him, he said, “that intelligence must have been involved” in producing life. He later backtracked on the reasons for his change of heart, saying he had been misled by the evidence he’d been presented with, a statement that ­attracted some derision in humanist and philosophical circles. Which is why, I suspect, that at the age of 86, Flew doesn’t want to go into all this in depth again.

He does, however, still believe in God – or, in his case, god. For Flew had become not a Christian, but a deist, a distinction the British Humanist Association correctly noted on its website, where it continued for a while to list him as a “distinguished supporter” with the regretful rider: “Professor Flew has recently become a deist. Nevertheless, we would like to thank him for his many years of support.”

Flew was no more sympathetic to the revealed religions of the Book, with their “monstrous Oriental despots” of gods, as he called them, than before. He had simply come to the conclusion that, at the very least, there was probably some kind of “first cause”; and that this, rather than an interventionist deity presiding over an afterlife, was what he meant by “god”.

Most people have probably never heard of the term deism, or, if they had, would fail to distinguish it from theism. The confusion would be understandable given that the two terms’ derivations differ merely in that deist comes from the Latin deus and theist from the Greek theos, and that both mean “god”. The two are very different, however.

Deists believe in a god who created but does not intervene in the universe. That god, however, does not have to be anything more than an entity that set creation in motion. It does not give you the anthropomorphised deity to whom many believers pray, nor any of the trappings and beliefs that we associate with religion.

Theism, on the other hand, implies belief in the God of the Abrahamic religions, who remains present to and active within the world at the same time as transcendent over it.

But, from the Enlightenment onwards, the influence of deism has been vast. Many of America’s Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jef­ferson and Benjamin Franklin, were deists, as were the philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire and the English radical pamphleteer Tom Paine. The precise nature of Flew’s deism is a matter of considerable controversy. Some allege that the philosopher has been taken advantage of, and that his 2007 book There Is a God was mainly the work of his American co-author, Roy Varghese, although Flew vigorously denies this. Nevertheless, many felt that the book lacked the coherence and style of his earlier works, such as God and Philosophy and his essay “The Presumption of Atheism”, and did not show the brilliance of a mind known to generations of undergraduates. A New York Times reviewer summed up the mood of the new book’s detractors: “I doubt thoughtful believers will welcome this volume. Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

The deism of the Founding Fathers, however, was significantly stronger than that which can be ascribed to Flew with con­fidence. Theirs was that of a natural religion, one that was not revealed to Middle Eastern prophets but could be arrived at by reason. The laws of nature must have been designed, goes the argument, hence there must be a designer, and the concept of natural rights (which so permeates the United States constitution) is embodied in his creation.

Any belief in scriptural authenticity or an ­afterlife is not entailed, although many of these deists were close enough to religion for it to be queried today whether they were, in fact, not deists but rationalist theists. Benjamin Franklin was typical of those who took this approach. “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he wrote to the president of Yale University in 1790, “I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

If Franklin’s words strike a chord with many, including those who think of themselves as being Christians, perhaps that is no surprise. According to Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham and a world-renowned New Testament scholar, most of them are in fact deists – whether they know it or not. “I think that almost all ‘ordinary English’ people – and a good many others, too – simply take a deist framework of thought for granted and when they hear the word ‘god’ that’s what they are thinking of,” he tells me. “The fact that there is a major difference between deism and the three Abrahamic religions is not just news to most; it is incomprehensible when the ‘news’ is told them.”

Wright’s analysis certainly fits with the vague professions and low-level observance that characterise the popular image, and often the reality, of English churchgoing (as opposed to the more rigid theologies and greater demands placed on followers of, say, Catholicism and Islam). And if it is correct, it is of far greater significance than the decision of one particular atheist, however famous, to join them. C S Lewis was once himself a deist, until he took a journey to Whipsnade Zoo in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike, at the end of which he found he had become a Christian. But his later words, subsequent to his final conversion, are a stern rebuke to any Christian who fails to affirm the divinity of Christ, or thinks of him merely as a great teacher; for they have in fact lapsed into deism. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” wrote Lewis. “He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

No in-between path can be taken to be truly Christian. In which case, the multitudes that do take just such paths, while still occasionally taking a pew, and the similar numbers of those who profess no formal religion, but maintain a hazy conviction that there must be some originator of the universe, may make up the millions of what could be thought of as Britain’s hidden religion – a deist faith that the world has forgotten.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times