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I’m a believer

In our increasingly secular society, many religious people feel their voices are not heard. So here,

After four centuries of breathtaking scientific progress, many wonder why intelligent people would still feel the need to believe in God. Andrew Zak Williams decided to find out. Over the course of several months, he corresponded with dozens of scientists and other public figures, quizzing them on the reasons for their faith. Here is a selection of the responses.

Cherie Blair, barrister
It's been a journey from my upbringing to an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true.

Jeremy Vine, broadcaster
There is a subjective reason and an objective reason. The subjective reason is that I find consolation in my faith. The objective reason is that the story of the gospels has stood the test of time and Christ comes across as a totally captivating figure.

In moments of weariness or cynicism, I tell myself I only believe because my parents did; and the Christian faith poses more questions than it answers.

But I still return to believing, as if that is more natural than not doing so.

Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Oxford
To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then human beings have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ's life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else.
In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.

Peter Hitchens, journalist
I believe in God because I choose to do so. I believe in the Christian faith because I prefer to do so. The existence of God offers an explanation of many of the mysteries of the universe - es­pecially "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and the questions which follow from that. It requires our lives to have a purpose, and our actions to be measurable against a higher standard than their immediate, observable effect. Having chosen belief in a God over unbelief, I find the Christian gospels more per­suasive and the Christian moral system more powerful than any other religious belief.

I was, it is true, brought up as a Christian, but ceased to be one for many years. When I returned to belief I could have chosen any, but did not.

Jonathan Aitken, former politician
I believe in God because I have searched for Him and found Him in the crucible of brokenness. Some years ago I went through an all-too-well-publicised drama of defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. In the course of that saga I discovered a loving God who answers prayers, forgives and redeems.

James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool
One word: Jesus. All that you imagine God would be, He is. His life and His love are compelling, His wisdom convincing.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London
I believe in God because He has both revealed and hidden Himself in so many different ways: in the created world, the Holy Bible, the man Jesus Christ; in the Church and men and women of God through the ages; in human relationships, in culture and beauty, life and death, pain and suffering; in immortal longings, in my faltering prayers and relationship with Him. There is nothing conclusive to force me into believing, but everything sug­gestive, and constantly drawing me on into the love of Christ and to "cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt".

David Alton, Lib Dem peer
The notion that humanity and the cosmos are an accident has always seemed implausible. A world littered with examples of complex genius - from developments in quantum theory to regenerative medicine - points us towards genius more perfect and more unfathomable than ourselves. The powerful combination of faith and reason led me as a child to believe in God.

Unsurprisingly, as I matured into manhood, that belief has not been immune against the usual catalogue of failure, sadness and grief; and belief has certainly not camouflaged the horrors of situations I have seen first hand in places such as Congo and Sudan. Paradoxically, it has been where suffering has been most acute that I have also seen the greatest faith.

By contrast, the more we own or have, the more difficulty we seem to have in seeing and encountering the Divine.

Professor Stephen R L Clark, philosopher
I believe in God because the alternatives are worse. Not believing in God would mean that we have no good reason to think that creatures such as us human beings (accidentally generated in a world without any overall purpose) have any capacity - still less any duty - to discover what the world is like.

Denying that "God exists" while still maintaining a belief in the power of reason is, in my view, ridiculous.My belief is that we need to add both that God is at least possibly incarnate among us, and that the better description of God (with all possible caveats about the difficulty of speaking about the infinite source of all being and value) is as something like a society. In other words, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, and of the trinity, have the philosophical edge. And once those doctrines are included, it is possible to see that other parts of that tradition are important.

Nick Spencer, director of Theos, the public theology think tank
I would say I find Christianity (rather than just belief in God) the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying explanation for being.

Stephen Green, director of the fundamentalist pressure group Christian Voice
I came to faith in God through seeing the ducks on a pond in People's Park, Grimsby. It struck me that they were all doing a similar job, but had different plumage. Why was that? Why did the coot have a white beak and the moorhen a red one? Being a hard-nosed engineer, I needed an explanation that worked and the evolutionary model seemed too far-fetched and needful of too much faith!

I mean, what could possibly be the evolutionary purpose of the bars on the hen mallard's wings, which can only be seen when she flies? Or the tuft on the head of the tufted duck?

So I was drawn logically to see them as designed like that. I suppose I believed in an intelligent designer long before the idea became fashionable. So, that left me as a sort of a deist. But God gradually became more personal to me and I was drawn against all my adolescent atheist beliefs deeper and deeper into faith in Jesus Christ.

Douglas Hedley, reader in metaphysics, Clare College, Cambridge
Do values such as truth, beauty and goodness emerge out of a contingent and meaningless substrate? Or do these values reflect a transcendent domain from which this world has emerged? I incline to the latter, and this is a major reason for my belief in God.

Paul Davies, quantum physicist
I am not comfortable answering the question "Why do you believe in God?" because you haven't defined "God". In any case, as a scientist,
I prefer not to deal in "belief" but rather in the usefulness of concepts. I am sure I don't believe in any sort of god with which most readers of your article would identify.

I do, however, assume (along with all scientists) that there is a rational and intelligible scheme of things that we uncover through scientific investigation. I am uncomfortable even being linked with "a god" because of the vast baggage that this term implies (a being with a mind, able to act on matter within time, making decisions, etc).

Professor Derek Burke, biochemist and former president of Christians in Science
There are several reasons why I believe in God. First of all, as a scientist who has been privileged to live in a time of amazing scientific discoveries (I received my PhD in 1953, the year Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA), I have been overwhelmed by wonder at the order and intricacy of the world around us. It is like peeling skins off an onion: every time you peel off a layer, there is another one underneath, equally marvellously intricate. Surely this could not have arisen by chance? Then my belief is strengthened by reading the New Testament especially, with the accounts of that amazing person, Jesus, His teaching, His compassion, His analysis of the human condition, but above all by His resurrection. Third, I'm deeply impressed by the many Christians whom I have met who have lived often difficult lives with compassion and love. They are an inspiration to me.

Peter J Bussey, particle physicist
God is the ultimate explanation, and this includes the explanation for the existence of physical reality, for laws of nature and everything. Let me at this point deal with a commonly encountered "problem" with the existence of God, one that Richard Dawkins and others have employed.
It goes that if God is the ultimate cause or the ultimate explanation, what then is the cause of God, or the explanation for God? My reply
is that, even in our own world, it is improper to repeat the same investigatory question an indefinite number of times. For example, we ask, "Who designed St Paul's Cathedral?" and receive the reply: "Sir Christopher Wren." But, "No help whatever," objects the sceptic, "because, in that case, who then designed Sir Christopher Wren?" To this, our response will now be that it is an inappropriate question and anyone except a Martian would know that. Different questions will be relevant now.

So, likewise, it is very unlikely that we know the appropriate questions, if any, to ask about God, who is presumably outside time, and is the source of the selfsame rationality that we presume to employ to understand the universe and to frame questions about God.
What should perhaps be underlined is that, in the absence of total proof, belief in God will be to some extent a matter of choice.

Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, bioethicist and Anglican priest
At the age of 18 or 19, a religious way of understanding the world began increasingly to make sense. It did not involve in any way abandoning the scientific way. If you like, it's a larger way of understanding our relationship with the rest of the world, our position in nature and all those standard questions to do with why we are here, if there is life after death, and so on. That was reinforced by good teaching, prayer and regular reading of scripture.

Peter Richmond, theoretical physicist
Today most people reject the supernatural but there can be no doubt that the teachings of Jesus are still relevant. And here I would differentiate these from some of the preaching of authoritarian churches, which has no doubt been the source of much that could be considered to be evil over the years. Even today, we see conflict in places such as Africa or the Middle East - killings made in the name of religion, for example. As Christians, we recognise these for what they are - evil acts perpetrated by the misguided. At a more domestic level, the marginalisation of women in the Church is another example that should be exposed for what it is: sheer prejudice by the present incumbents of the Church hierarchy. But as Christians, we can choose to make our case to change things as we try to follow the social teachings of Jesus. Compared to pagan idols, Jesus offered hope, comfort and inspiration, values that are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Michigan
[Our] spirituality, rooted in the developing biblical wisdom and in a faith tradition that crosses the centuries, helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology, Brown University
I regard scientific rationality as the key to understanding the material basis of our existence as well as our history as a species. That's the reason why I have fought so hard against the "creationists" and those who advocate "intelligent design". They deny science and oppose scientific rationality, and I regard their ideas as a threat to a society such as ours that has been so hospitable to the scientific enterprise.

There are, however, certain questions that science cannot answer - not because we haven't figured them out yet (there are lots of those), but because they are not scientific questions at all. As the Greek philosophers used to ask, what is the good life? What is the nature of good and evil? What is the purpose to existence? My friend Richard Dawkins would ask, in response, why we should think that such questions are even important. But to most of us, I would respond, these are the most important questions of all.

What I can tell you is that the world I see, including the world I know about from science, makes more sense to me in the light of a spiritual understanding of existence and the hypo­thesis of God. Specifically, I see a moral polarity to life, a sense that "good" and "evil" are actual qualities, not social constructions, and that choosing the good life (as the Greeks meant it) is the central question of existence. Given that, the hypothesis of God conforms to what I know about the material world from science and gives that world a depth of meaning that I would find impossible without it.

Now, I certainly do not "know" that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason religious belief is called "faith", and not "certainty". But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science, and even provides a reason why science works and is of such value - because science explores that rationality of existence, a rationality that itself derives from the source of that existence.

In any case, I am happy to confess that I am a believer, and that for me, the Christian faith is the one that resonates. What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone's, can meet a scientific test.

Nick Brewin, molecular biologist
A crucial component of the question depends on the definition of "God". As a scientist, the "God" that I believe in is not the same God(s) that I used to believe in. It is not the same God that my wife believes in; nor is it the same God that my six-year-old granddaughter believes in; nor is it the God that my brain-damaged and physically disabled brother believes in. Each person has their own concept of what gives value and purpose to their life. This concept of "God" is based on a combination of direct and indirect experience.

Humankind has become Godlike, in the sense that it has acquired the power to store and manipulate information. Language, books, computers and DNA genomics provide just a few illustrations of the amazing range of technologies at our fingertips. Was this all merely chance? Or should we try to make sense of the signs and wonders that are embedded in a "revealed religion"?

Perhaps by returning to the "faith" position of children or disabled adults, scientists can extend their own appreciation of the value and purpose of individual human existence. Science and religion are mutually complementary.

Hugh Ross, astrophysicist and astronomer
Astronomy fascinates me. I started serious study of the universe when I was seven. By the age of 16, I could see that Big Bang cosmology offered the best explanation for the history of the universe, and because the Big Bang implies a cosmic beginning, it would require a cosmic beginner. It seemed reasonable that a creator of such awesome capacities would speak clearly and consistently if He spoke at all. So I spent two years perusing the holy books of the world's religions to test for these characteristics. I found only one such book. The Bible stood apart: not only did it provide hundreds of "fact" statements that could be tested for accuracy, it also anticipated - thousands of years in advance - what scientists would later discover, such as the fundamental features of Big Bang cosmology.

My observation that the Bible's multiple creation narratives accurately describe hundreds of details discovered much later, and that it consistently places them in the scientifically correct sequence, convinced me all the more that the Bible must be the supernaturally inspired word of God. Discoveries in astronomy first alerted me to the existence of God, and to this day the Bible's power to anticipate scientific discoveries and predict sociopolitical events ranks as a major reason for my belief in the God of the Bible. Despite my secular upbringing, I cannot ignore the compelling evidence emerging from research into the origin of the universe, the anthropic principle, the origin of life and the origin of humanity. Theaccumulating evidence continues to point compellingly towards the God of the Bible.

Steve Fuller, philosopher/professor of sociology, University of Warwick
I am a product of a Jesuit education (before university), and my formal academic training is in history and philosophy of science, which is the field credited with showing the tight links between science and religion. While I have never been an avid churchgoer, I am strongly moved by the liberatory vision of Jesus promoted by left-wing Christians.

I take seriously the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we may come to exercise the sorts of powers that are associated with divinity. In this regard, I am sympathetic to the dissenting, anticlerical schools of Christianity - especially Unitarianism, deism and transcendentalism, idealism and humanism. I believe that it is this general position that has informed the progressive scientific spirit.

People such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens like to think of themselves as promoting a progressive view of humanity, but I really do not see how Darwinism allows that at all, given its species-egalitarian view of nature (that is, humans are just one more species - no more privileged than the rest of them). As I see it, the New Atheists live a schizoid existence, where they clearly want to privilege humanity but have no metaphysical basis for doing so.

Michael J Behe, scientific advocate of intelligent design
Two primary reasons: 1) that anything exists; and 2) that we human beings can comprehend and reason. I think both of those point to God.

Denis Alexander, director, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge
I believe in the existence of a personal God. Viewing the universe as a creation renders it more coherent than viewing its existence as without cause. It is the intelligibility of the world that requires explanation.

Second, I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the
Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God. Third, having been a Christian for more than five decades, I have experienced God through Christ over this period in worship, answered prayer and through His love. These experiences are more coherent based on the assumption that God does exist.

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia
There are many reasons - lines of evidence, if you will - all of which weave together to point me in a certain direction (much as a scientist or a jury might do before reaching a considered judgement), which we call a belief.

[I believe] because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and
it just so happens that He predicted that He would . . . I believe because of the testimony of billions of believers, just a few of whom are known to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony).

I believe because of my ineradicable sense that certain things I see and hear about in the world warrant the non-arbitrary categories of "good" or "evil". I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created - willed into being - by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Humanist and Skeptic. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special

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Humanising hell

Our restless conscience and the search for peace.

This essay is based upon the One People Oration I delivered at Westminster Abbey in October 2014. I have made hundreds of speeches in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for 25 years, but this was the only one I had given in Westminster Abbey. In its early days, in the early 1300s, Parliament actually sat there, in the Chapter House and then in the Refectory of the Abbey. So as an MP I felt very at home, but there were important differences. 

The Commons is a scene of noisy disagreement, while in the Abbey we were surrounded by a thousand years of reflection and calm. In the Commons I would be cut off mid-flow if I went a minute over my allotted time, but in the Abbey I spoke for as long as I needed to and had some hope the audience might actually have been listening. When I spoke in the House of Commons I was just yards from where my hero William Pitt the Younger (Hague 2005) debated with Fox and Burke and Sheridan, but he was actually buried in the Abbey, with his father, in what I believe is the only grave in our country to contain two prime ministers.

People often comment that politicians are becoming younger, but Pitt was prime minister at the age of 24. There has never been a younger occupant of Number 10 before or since, and I doubt there will ever be one again or one as peculiarly gifted as a parliamentary orator. Pitt was prime minister for 18 years and 11 months, and for half that time Britain was at war with France and frequently at risk of invasion.

Another hero of mine, William Wilberforce (Hague 2008), is also buried in the Abbey, thanks to his family and friends countermanding his wish to be buried elsewhere. His house, Number 4 Palace Yard, stood just over the wall and was by every account a veritable pandemonium of books, pets, visitors and hapless servants he never had the heart to let go. From amid that ferment of ideas and activity he spent 20 years converting the people and entire political establishment of Britain to the cause of abolition. Year after year he moved motions in the House of Commons that were defeated. But in 1807, two decades after he began, he finally succeeded in turning our country from a slave-trading nation into one that bullied, harassed and bribed other countries into giving up their own detestable traffic in humans. And he did this without ever holding any office in any government.

Although I am not an intensely religious person, in writing my book on Wilberforce I came to admire the unquenchable determination to succeed in a cause that religion – in his case evangelical Christianity – inspired in him. Because he believed he was accounting to God for how he spent his time, he actually recorded what he did with it. His papers include tables detailing each quarter hour of the day. One typical entry describes seven and a half hours of Commons business, eight and a quarter hours in bed, five and a half hours of ‘requisite company &c visits &c’, three‑quarters of an hour of serious reading and meditation, 15 minutes unaccounted for or dressing and one hour described as ‘squandered’.

While few in his age had his gift with words and his obsessive drive, Wilberforce was not alone in being inspired by his faith. He was part of the Clapham sect, a small group of politicians, lawyers, merchants, churchmen and bankers based around Clapham Common, who were responsible for one of the greatest varieties and volumes of charitable activity ever launched by any group of people in any age.

Their primary goal was the abolition of the slave trade and the founding of Sierra Leone, but on top of this they set up a staggering array of charitable causes: the London Missionary Society; the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor; the Church Missionary Society; the Religious Tract Society; the Society for Promoting the Religious Instruction of Youth; the Society for the Relief of the Industrious Poor; the British National Endeavour for the Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors; the Institution for the Protection of Young Girls; the Society for the Suppression of Vice; the Sunday School Union; the Society for Superceding the Necessity for Climbing Boys in Cleansing Chimneys; the British and Foreign Bible Society; and two with particularly wonderful names: The Asylum House of Refuge for the Reception of Orphaned Girls the Settlements of whose Parents Cannot be Found and, finally, the Friendly Female Society, for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows, and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days. And we think we live in an age of activism.

***

I know that for many people today religious faith of all kinds remains a great inspiration and channel for charity and altruism. And whatever faith or creed we live by, inherent in our democracy is the idea that our freedoms and rights are universal. Oppression or conflict or poverty or injustice anywhere in the world has stirred our consciences, as individuals and collectively, throughout our history. I want to argue that maintaining and building on that national tradition is absolutely vital in the twenty-first century, both as a moral obligation and in order to prevent wars at a time of growing international instability.

The year 2014, when I delivered my lecture in Westminster Abbey, saw us marking 100 years since the First World War, in which so many of our countrymen perished because conflict was not averted. Remembering that dreadful conflict should inspire us to maintain our restless conscience as a nation and be determined to do whatever we can to improve the condition of humanity. We should have faith – in the broadest sense – in our ideas and our ideals as a country, and in our ability to have a positive impact on the development of other nations and the future of our world.

One of the most moving sights I have seen in some time was the sea of poppies encircling the Tower of London, commemorating each and every British and Commonwealth military fatality in the First World War. It was a silent exhortation to remember, to be grateful for what we have and to learn the lessons of those times when peace had to be restored at so great a price to humanity. So too is the revered Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, ‘buried among Kings’, as his gravestone says, as one of the many who ‘gave the most that man can give, life itself, for God, for King and Country, for Loved Ones and Empire, for the Sacred Cause of Justice and the Freedom of the World’. The remains of 15 British soldiers from the War were reburied in Belgium in October 2014, 100 years after they were killed in battle, reminding us that we are still counting the cost of that terrible conflagration.

As Foreign Secretary, for four years I occupied the office used by Sir Edward Grey, with its windows overlooking Horseguards and St James’s Park. Standing at those windows, as he contemplated the catastrophe about to engulf the world, he famously said, ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. The failure of diplomacy on the eve of the War ushered in greater suffering than Grey and his contemporaries could ever have imagined: war on an industrial scale, ‘the butchery of the unknown by the unseen’, in the words of one war correspondent, in which 10 million soldiers died on all sides, 20 million were severely wounded and eight million were permanently disabled; in which appalling massacres, rapes and other atrocities were committed against thousands of civilians and millions of refugees were created; and which was all to be followed by the Second World War, the massacres in Poland, the gas chambers and extermination camps of the Holocaust, pogroms in the Soviet Union and the slaughter of war and revolution in China.

It is tempting to look back on the horrors and evils of the past and to think that these things could not happen again. It would be comforting to imagine that we have reached such a level of education and enlightenment that ideologies like Nazism, Fascism and Communism that led to mass slaughter, and the nationalism that leads states to attack their neighbours or groups within states to massacre their fellow citizens, have all seen an end. Sadly, I believe this is an illusion.

There is an additional illusion that sometimes takes hold, as it did before the First World War, that a permanent peace has arrived. Then, Europe had enjoyed 99 years without widespread war. The Great Powers had found a way back from the brink of conflict several times, and Grey and his colleagues can be forgiven for thinking that crises would always be resolved by diplomacy, when in fact they were on the edge of the two greatest cataclysms in history.

History shows that while circumstances change, human nature is immutable. However educated, advanced or technologically skilled we become, we are still highly prone to errors of judgement, to greed and thus to conflict. There is no irreversible progress towards democracy, human rights and greater freedoms just as there is unlikely to be any such thing as a state of permanent peace. Unless each generation acts to preserve the gains it inherits and to build upon them for the future, then peace, democracy and freedom can easily be eroded, and conflict can readily break out.

***

It is true that there is more education, welfare, charitable endeavour and kindness in our world than ever before, that we have reached extraordinary diplomatic milestones like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that we have a United Nations (UN) system carrying out responsibilities from peacekeeping to the protection of our environment. We should never lose faith in the positive side of human nature and always retain our optimism and belief in our ability to shape our destiny. But my argument is that it is also true that the capacity of human beings to inflict unspeakable violence upon others, of ideologies that are pure evil to rise up or for states that are badly led to wade into new forms of conflict are all as present as ever.

We often read about massacres as if such barbaric things are only to be found in the pages of history. But the short span of our own lifetimes tells a different story, from Europe to the Middle East, to Africa and Asia. Only in 1995, in Europe, 8000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in a single week. Over five million people have been killed in the Congo in the two decades up to 2014.

In April 2014, when I attended the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan massacres, I and the other international representatives were standing where nearly a third of a million people are buried in a single grave, a third of the million women, men and children slain in cold blood within 100 days. Also in 2014, two of Pol Pot’s henchmen, part of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed more than a million people, were convicted and given life sentences. In Iraq and Syria, in a perversion of religion, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is currently terrorizing communities with beheadings and crucifixions. And think of the barrel bombs that have rained down on schools in Syria from the Assad regime and the pitiless desperation to hold on to power needed to produce such utter inhumanity.

Aggressive ideology, despotism and fanaticism live on, despite all our other advances and achievements. This is the human condition. Our optimism and faith in human nature will always have to contend with this harsh truth, at the same time as being essential to overcoming such evils. That is why it is so important for us to have a strong sense of history so that we never lose sight of how fragile peace and security can be. And so we understand that diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of conflicts is not an abstract concept but our greatest responsibility.

In our information-rich, media-saturated world, history can be caricatured as a luxury, not least for those who have their hands full running the country. But I could not imagine having been Foreign Secretary without drawing on the advice of the Foreign Office historians, who were able to offer historical precedents for every conceivable revolution, insurgency, treaty or crisis, and who produced maps and papers that shed light on the most intractable of modern problems. It is as important to consult the lessons of history in foreign policy as it is to seek the advice of our embassies, our intelligence agencies, our military and our allies. History is not set in stone and is open to endless reinterpretation. But the habit of deep and searching thought rooted in history must be cultivated: not to paralyse us or make us excessively pessimistic, but to help us make sound decisions and guide our actions.

It remains as true today as it was when Edmund Burke first expressed it that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing. We cannot in our generation coast along or think it is not our responsibility or that it is too difficult to tackle conflict and injustice that bring misery to millions. However pressing the crises of the day, we have to address the fundamental conditions that lead to armed conflict and reduce the human suffering it causes. This means not only maintaining Britain’s global role – living up to our responsibilities, protecting our interests internationally and being able to project military power where necessary – but also consciously encouraging and developing the ideas, concepts and strategies needed to address poverty, conflict and injustice.

All our advances start with an idea. Powerful ideas can then become unstoppable movements as indeed the abolition of the slave trade did in the eighteenth century. For that to happen governments have to adopt the best of these ideas, and leaders have to be prepared to be open and radical.

***

The title of my essay is taken from a remark by Admiral John Fisher, First Sea Lord in the early nineteenth century and commander of the Royal Navy at the start of the First World War. In 1899, he was sent as Britain’s representative to the first Hague Peace Conference, called by Russia, to discuss the growing arms race and place curbs on the use of certain weapons in war. As these proposals were discussed at the negotiating table, he is said to have remarked with some passion that one could sooner talk of ‘humanising hell’ than of ‘humanising war’. While he was, of course, right about the hell of war, in actual fact the traumatic experience of conflict and great idealism have often gone together. It has frequently been the very experience of war that has spurred mankind’s greatest advances in international relations, based on ideas that were radical when first presented. 

When Henry Dunant observed the agonizing deaths of thousands of injured men at the battle of Solferino in 1859, his outrage and activism led to the 1864 Geneva Convention, the founding text of contemporary international humanitarian law, which laid the foundation for the treatment of prisoners in war. After the First World War, there was a vast and intensive period of institution building, leading to the League of Nations, International Labour Organization, the prohibition on use of chemical weapons and the creation of the High Commissioner for Refugees to find a way of returning millions of European refugees to their homes, which supports over 50 million refugees and displaced people worldwide today.

While the Second World War was raging, Roosevelt and Churchill spent hours discussing the creation of a new international body to prevent conflict in the future, which led to the United Nations itself, the Security Council and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More recently, in our lifetime, the outrage at atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, Liberia and Bosnia led to the creation of the International Criminal Court and the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. Since 1990 our country has played a leading role in securing international bans on the use of cluster munitions and landmines, and I was proud to sign on Britain’s behalf the ratification of the International Arms Trade Treaty, the culmination of ten years of advocacy begun here in Britain.

The humanising of the hell of war is a continual process. While our goal must always be to avert conflict in the first place, except as a last resort as provided in the UN charter, it is also essential to establish norms of behaviour about what is unacceptable even in times of war. This is vital so that if conflict breaks out despite our best efforts, governments feel restrained by the threat of accountability for any crimes that are committed, we have mechanisms to protect civilians and peace agreements take account of the need for reconciliation and the punishment of crimes against humanity. The crucial point is that while the international bodies we have are the result of diplomacy, they do not simply arise on their own. They are the product of ideas generated by individuals, groups or governments refusing to accept the status quo, such that then, with enough momentum, public support and political commitment became reality.

I think of this ‘restless conscience’, as I call it, as an enduring and admirable British characteristic. Our nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), lawyers, academics and Crown servants have had an extraordinary impact internationally. In my time in the Foreign Office I found our diplomats a powerful part of this tradition, from their work on the abolition of the death penalty, to improving the lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities worldwide, to helping negotiations as far away as the now‑successful Mindanao Peace Process in the Philippines. This is part of our country’s distinctive contribution to the world, and it involves the power of our ideas as much as the skill of our diplomats. We must always cherish and encourage that flow of ideas and idealism and those rivers of soft power and influence that form such a large part of our role in the world.

It is also true that diplomatic negotiations for peace do not simply arise automatically. They require extraordinary effort by individuals. US former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for example, deserves praise for his tireless work on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He chose to devote weeks on end trying to restart and conclude those negotiations, rather than taking the easy route of not attempting such a difficult task. Individuals and the choices they make have an immense impact. Sometimes the individual is someone in high office, like William Pitt, who did his utmost in the early 1790s to avoid war with France and whose State Paper of 1805 was the basis for European peace for most of the nineteenth century. Or it is someone like Wilberforce, who was never a government minister, but whose ideas and energy brought relief, an end of suffering and ultimately freedom for millions of people.

Choices are motivated differently. The coalition to end the British slave trade was driven not just by moral considerations, but also by political and economic factors. Adam Smith argued against slavery because he saw it as an inefficient allocation of resources. British naval supremacy in the world meant that in simple political terms, abolition was possible because we had the diplomatic and military muscle to enforce it. And Wilberforce was outraged that slaves had no opportunity to embrace Christianity, so their souls were being lost. So his key argument against the trade was neither economic nor political, it was religious. It is inevitable that in this way governments, like individuals, are motivated by a number of different factors. But we must pursue the issues today that bring together the moral interest and the national interest, using the combination of powerful ideas, our strong institutions and our global role.

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We should be proud that, so far, our country has kept its promise to spend 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on international development, not just because it is morally right, but also because it is profoundly in our national interest to help other nations lift their citizens out of poverty. We have to continue to lead global efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade, which destroys the natural heritage of African nations, undermines economic development and creates instability. It is vital that we promote a rules-based international system, because it nourishes the commerce, trade and stability that are the lifeblood of our own economy as well as strengthening human rights internationally. And it is essential that we support political reform, civil society, women’s rights and economic progress in the Middle East, because it is vital to our long-term security that that region becomes more free, more stable and more prosperous.

The pursuit of policies that bring stability in the world, and the moral authority for them, are inseparable. Any idea that we should retrench, withdraw or turn away from these issues is misguided and wrong for two reasons. First, the world is becoming systemically less stable. This is due to many different factors: the dispersal of power amongst a wider group of nations, many of whom do not fully share our values and our objectives in foreign policy; the diffusion of power away from governments, accelerated by technology; the globalization of ideas and ability of people to organize themselves into leaderless movements and spread ideas around the world within minutes; our interconnectedness, a boon for development but also a major vulnerability to threats, from terrorism and cyber crime to the spread of diseases like Ebola; the growing global middle class, which is driving demand for greater accountability and more freedom within states designed to suppress such instincts; and the rise of religious intolerance in the Middle East.

Global institutions are struggling to deal with these trends. It is not enough to ensure there is no conflict on our own continent, although sadly the crisis in Ukraine has shown, once again, that even Europe is not immune. Conflict anywhere in the world affects us through refugee flows, the crimes and terrorism that conflict fuels and the billions of pounds needed in humanitarian assistance, so we have to address these issues.

Second, the pursuit of sound development, inclusive politics and the rule of law are essential to our moral standing in the world, which is in turn an important factor in our international influence. As I pointed out in 2006, the US and UK suffered a loss of moral authority as a result of aspects of the War on Terror, which affected the standing of our foreign policy and the willingness of other countries to work with us, and which both President Obama’s administration and our own government worked hard to address. We are strongest when we act with moral authority, and that means being the strongest champions of our values.

Thus, neither as a matter of wise policy nor as a matter of conscience can Britain ever afford to turn aside from a global role. We have to continue to be restless advocates for improving the condition of humanity. This means continuing to forge new alliances, reforming the UN and other global institutions and enforcing the rules that govern international relations. But that will never be enough by itself, so we also have to retain the ambition to influence not just the resolutions that are passed and the treaties that are signed up to, but also the beliefs in the world about what is acceptable and what is not.

A powerful example of an issue on which we need to apply such leadership is the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. I have been surprised by how deeply engrained and passive attitudes to this subject often are. Because history is full of accounts of the mass abuse of women and captives, and because there is so much domestic violence in all societies, it is a widely held view that violence against women and girls is inevitable in peacetime and in conflict.

But when we see ISIL foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria selling women as slaves and glorifying rape and sexual slavery; when we hear of refugees, who have already lost everything, being raped in camps for want of basic protections; when we see leaders exhorting their fighters to go out and rape their opponents, specifically to inflict terror, to make women pregnant, to force people to flee their homes and to destroy their families and communities; or peace agreements giving amnesty to men who have ordered and carried out rape or deliberately turned a blind eye to it; or soldiers – and even peacekeepers – committing rape due to lack of discipline, proper training, no accountability and a culture that treats women as the spoils of war, a commodity to be exploited with impunity, then we are clearly dealing with injustice on a scale that is simply intolerable, as well as damaging to the stability of those countries and the peace of the wider world.

It is often said to me that without war there would be no warzone rape, as if that is the only way to address the problem. While of course our goal is always to prevent conflict, we cannot simply consign millions of women, men, girls and boys to the suffering of rape while we seek a way to put an end to all conflict, since, as I have argued, this goal is one we should always strive for but may often not attain.

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We have shown that we can put restraints on the way war is conducted. We have put beyond the pale the use of poison gas or torture and devised the Arms Trade Treaty for the trade in illegal weapons. It is time to address this aspect of conflict and to treat sexual violence as an issue of global peace and security. The biggest obstacle we face in this campaign is the idea you cannot do anything about it – that you cannot humanise hell, that there is nothing we can do to end warzone rape. But there is hope, and we must dispel this pessimism. Over the last two years, working with NGOs, the UN and faith groups, we have brought the weight and influence of Britain to bear globally as no country ever has done before on this subject.

Over 150 countries have joined our campaign and endorsed a global declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict. We brought together over 120 governments and thousands of people at a Global Summit in London in June 2014, the first of its kind. And in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Colombia we are seeing signs of governments being prepared to address this issue by passing laws and reforming their militaries.

What would it say about our commitment to human rights in our own society if we knew about such abuses but did nothing about them? And how could we be at the forefront of preventing conflict in the world if we did not act to prevent something that causes conflict in the future? Sexual violence is often designed to make peace impossible to achieve and create the bitterness and incentive for future conflict. Dealing with it is not a luxury to be added on, it is an integral part of conflict prevention, a crucial part of breaking a cycle of war. And it has to go hand in hand with seeking the full political, social and economic empowerment of women everywhere, the greatest strategic prize of all for our century.

In 2014 we commemorated those who died in the First World War and their suffering. There is no more fitting thing we can do for the sake of that memory than to face up to the hell of conflict in our lifetimes. We have never had to mobilize our population to fight in the way their generation did, and so we have been spared their painful burdens. But how much more incumbent does that make it on all of us to fight with the peaceful tools at our disposal on behalf of those who are denied, through no fault of their own, the security we consider our birthright.

Just as in Wilberforce’s day, it will always be necessary for Britain to be at the forefront of efforts to improve the condition of humanity. The search for peace and an end to conflict requires powerful ideas and the relentless defence of our values, as much it does negotiations and summits between nations. We could be heading for such turbulent times that it will be easy for some people to say we should not bother with development or tackling sexual violence in conflict or other such issues. There will always be the pressing crisis of the day that risks drowning out such long‑term causes. But, in fact, addressing these issues is crucial to overcoming crises now and in the future – and it will be an increasingly important part of our moral authority and standing in the world that we are seen to do this.

Just because there are economic crises and major social changes does not mean we or our partners can squander any day or any year in producing the ideas as well as the laws that prevent conflict and deal with some of the greatest scourges of the twenty-first century, and we must do so with confidence: for it remains the case that free and democratic societies are the only places where the ideas and the moral force we need can be found. Our times call for a renewal of that effort – for just and equitable solutions to conflict, the driving down of global inequalities and the confronting of injustices.

Every day we have to start again: there is not going to be a day in our lifetimes when we can wake up and say this work is complete. We have to overcome the sense of helplessness that says that vast problems cannot be tackled. We have to awaken the conscience of nations and stir the actions of governments. In an age of mass communication this is a task for every one of us. Whether we are in government, are diplomats, journalists, members of the armed forces, members of the public, students, faith groups or civil servants, every one of us is part of that effort.

In Britain, our restless conscience should never allow us to withdraw behind our fortifications and turn away from the world but should always inspire us to strive for peace and security, to maintain our responsibilities, seek new ways of addressing the worst aspects of human behaviour and live up to our greatest traditions.

This essay is taken from The Moral Heart of Public Service, edited by Claire Foster-Gilbert and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, priced £15.99, on 21 June 2017.

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