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After the coal rush

Not all of Kent is a tourist haven like Canterbury or as middle class as Tunbridge Wells. With the m

Betteshanger was the last of Kent's four main coalfields to close. On 26 August 1989, the pit drew its last coal - the same day of the same month, by chance, that Mick started to work there in 1952. "Thirty-seven years to the day," he says, leaning back in his chair at the Bettes­hanger Social Club. His friend Brian remembers his first day down the mine, too: it was his 15th birthday. But he was away on holiday when it closed. Brian's daughter picked him up from the airport. "Dad, I've got something to tell you," she said. He went straight to the pit, collected his tools and left. The two men have been friends for most of their lives and both went to work at the pit, after the customary 13 weeks' training, as soon as they left school aged 14. They have been coming to the social club for most of that time, too. The miners would gather here after work and have a cigarette, a cup of tea and a pie (the pies were famous, made to a secret recipe that recently lured ex-miners from all around the county to a reunion), before catching the bus back home to Deal, a lane-threaded seaside town nearby.

Now in their seventies, Mick and Brian come to the club every week for a coffee morning. They arrive together, sit at the same table and leave after an hour or so of conversation. Their memories, like their lives, are intertwined: they look to each other to remember names, dates and stories. Mining shaped their families. Their wives worked at the colliery - Brian's as a cleaner in the office and Mick's in the canteen - and their fathers, who had moved to Kent not long after Betteshanger opened in 1924, were both miners before them. Mick's family came from Wales and Brian's from Lancashire. It helped if mining was in the family - you knew what to expect when you went underground for the first time.

Coal was discovered in Kent in 1890 but many of the early collieries failed and were shut within a few years. Only four survived: Betteshanger, Chislet, Snowdown and Tilmanstone, of which Betteshanger was the largest, employing at its peak well over 1,000 people (the number had dropped to about 600 by the time the pit closed). The influx of miners apparently horrified the genteel residents of Deal, who put up "No miners" signs in their shops and cafés. The mines were under private ownership until nationalisation in 1947, and conditions at the pit were basic - there weren't even baths until 1934, so the miners would travel home each day blackened by coal dust.

Until the mines were mechanised in the early 1970s, the job was manual, men at the coalface with picks and shovels. As Mick puts it, "A lot of people would visit and say: 'I wouldn't work down here for a gold brick.'" Mick became a supervisor ("He went management," Brian says), mostly working nights. Brian, who had done a five-year mechanic's apprenticeship, moved to work on the machines above ground.

The community grew up around the mine. "We are close-knit. The work itself brings you together," Mick says. His friend agrees: "We worked together, lived together and, on a Saturday night, 80 per cent of us would come to have a drink here with our wives."

Looking back, both say they knew that the pit's closure was inevitable. Betteshanger had a long history of industrial action. In its early years, it attracted miners from all corners of Britain who had been blacklisted in their areas after the General Strike in 1926. Miners from the pit took part in the strikes of 1972 and 1974 and marched in London with the Betteshanger Brass Band. (The pit's red-and-blue banner, emblazoned with a picture of a miner gazing at the Houses of Parliament, hangs in a corner of the pool room at the club.)

But after Margaret Thatcher defeated the miners' strike in 1985, they knew that the end wasn't far off. Neither Mick nor Brian worked for the duration of the year-long protest. Brian says he was lucky - the bank let him off paying his mortgage - but others he knew lost their houses. In some cases, families broke up under the strain. "Brothers," Brian recalls. "One worked, one didn't. As soon as we started back to work, they were fighting."

After the pit closed, the miners were offered help to find work. A jobcentre was set up on the site but many went on the dole. Mick got a job on Deal pier. "I said I was the pier master," he says, "but I was just sweeping." Brian, grateful for his father's instruction to get a trade, found a job at a toolmaker's in Ramsgate. Both worked multiple jobs and were made redundant again at least once before they retired.

Not many other miners still live in Bettes­hanger. Mick and Brian live on Circular Road, a loop of 77 houses that were purpose-built for the pit's deputies and safety workers. Brian pulls a notebook from the breast pocket of his jacket. He is compiling a record of all the people who have lived in each house, from the day they were built. He dismisses the project as a "silly thing", but is taking it seriously. The book is filled with lists of door numbers and names; he says he knows many of the residents now.

Brian wants to memorialise a place transformed and the people long since departed. He seems to miss much of his former existence - his friends, the camaraderie, the miners' sports clubs and choirs, the trips to the beach they would organise every year, the way that no one bothered to lock their front door. "You used to walk into other people's houses and put the kettle on. They'd come in and say, 'Oh, have you made me one?'"

It took time to dismantle the pit, and even longer to replace it. For years, the land was left derelict. "[The place was] wrecked and ruined," Mick says. It was a similar picture around the country. After the last few pits were privatised or closed, the New Labour government, under the stewardship of the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, eventually established a task force in October 1997 to examine the future
of the former coalfields. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust emerged from one of its recommendations and began making grants to former mining communities in 1999.

In 2000, the newly created South-East England Development Agency (Seeda) bought up land at Betteshanger and invested nearly £20m in regenerating the old pit site. But, according to Barry Roberts, chairman of the Betteshanger Social Club, most of the money didn't go on the village. Instead, it was used to create Fowlmead Country Park, on the other side of the main road, where the pit's dumping ground used to be. Now, there are carefully landscaped paths, saplings planted in neat rows and tarmacked routes for cyclists. Despite the transformation, Brian and Mick still call the park "the tip".

Fowlmead is considered to be a success, but attracting new industry to the area has been more problematic. A hopeful sign at the turn-off to Betteshanger points to a business park. "No one ever turned up," says Roberts. Much of the land, prepared into plots for industrial buildings, lies empty. There's a rumour that an agricultural college is moving in but no one knows for sure. It would be a welcome arrival - over 20 years after the pit closed, there is simply not enough work.

The main employers locally are large-scale commercial farmers, whose workers, townspeople say, are mostly immigrants - those willing to work for little in pitiful conditions. One woman, who asked not to be named, said that members of her family had worked for a salad-growing company; they had come home every day with their clothes covered in stains from washing vegetables in chemicals.

Another major employer in the area is Pfizer, which has its only British research and development facility nearby in Sandwich. In February this year, however, Pfizer announced that it would be closing the 2,400-worker facility - a decision that was described at the time as a "body blow" for east Kent by the local Tory MP, Laura Sandys.

Family business

Mick and Brian say that the government has been hyperactive since Pfizer's announcement, desperate to attract replacement industry to the region. They point out the contrast to the apathy they witnessed after the mines closed. Even after the Coalfields Regeneration Trust was set up, many residents in the area felt that its efforts were concentrated on the northern coalfields and that the mining communities in the south-east were neglected. Gary Ellis, the trust's chief executive, points out that Kent is "geographically isolated and, in percentage terms, a very small part of the former coalfield areas". But, he says, the trust has made grants to the county in every one of its funding rounds.

According to Brinley Hill, a local community development manager at Dover District Council, there is a more fundamental problem. People assume that Kent is a wealthy place, able to provide for itself. Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells are emblems of middle-class comfort, but not far from those prettified towns are areas of deep poverty, unusual in the south-east of England outside London. Since 2007, eight of the 12 districts in Kent have experienced an increase in deprivation, with Dover (which covers Deal and Betteshanger) leaping 15 places up the national scale (to 127th out of 326 local authorities in England). The neighbouring district of Thanet is the worst off in the county, ranking nationally at 49.

Hill's father was a miner and he laughs at the strange kind of family business they have concocted. "He did mining; I do regeneration," he says. In the years after the pits closed, efforts weren't helped by the "massive lack of trust" that was felt in the community. Miners and their families, he observes, can find it hard to move on. "Mining communities go back many years," he says. "In the east Kent area, families travelled from all around the country to work there. Memories go back - of grandparents walking from Wales or down from Durham or Scotland. There's such fondness about that."

Hill has worked closely with local people to try to rebuild relationships, improve the area's economic prospects and restore the sense of community that seemed to ebb away after the pits closed. Gradually, small local regeneration projects have got off the ground - he enthusiastically lists the cosmetic improvements at the Betteshanger Social Club, with its new kitchen, fresh paint and sprung floor for tap-dancing. "It's the best it's ever looked," he says.

The immediate future for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust looks promising, too: the government has just awarded £30m to the trust to invest over the next two years, ensuring its ability to make small grants to communities such as Betteshanger until 2013.

Beyond that point, however, the outlook is less certain. Ellis says that the trust, like many other government-funded public bodies, has been instructed to come up with an "exit strategy", so that by March 2015 (just before the next general election), the organisation will no longer be dependent on government money. The idea, a cornerstone of the Prime Minister's "big society" strategy, is that the trust will be able to function as a social enterprise, generating its own income streams through the various projects it supports, so that it becomes, in government-speak, "self-sustaining".

Ellis is aware that this will not be easy and he emphasises the need for continued direct intervention, not least because "some of the former colliery sites still need to be cleaned up". He points out, too, that many of the projects that the trust supports are already generating their own revenue. "We've got groups coming to us saying, 'We are sustainable; we have income streams coming from different places,'" Ellis tells me, "but, as a result of the public expenditure cuts, some of these income streams have now disappeared."

The public spending cuts have also affected the regional development agencies, including Seeda. By 31 March 2012, the agency will no longer exist and strategic and financial support for local industry and programmes will be either reassigned or terminated.

A fair Deal

In a large, converted church in Deal, three miles down the road from Betteshanger, Paula Moorhouse runs the Landmark Centre, a community association. The deconsecrated church was going to be turned into a supermarket until a local activist lay down in front of a bulldozer; the protest helped save the building.

Moorhouse says that she is not connected in particular to former miners in the community; her work focuses instead on the younger gen­eration and trying to tackle youth unemployment. She also runs gardening groups for those with mental health problems and dad-and-toddler groups for young parents. But she notes the miners' legacy. Deal, she says, has an unusually strong sense of community and people with little to give will empty their pockets for charity. She receives support from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which gave her funding to set up the centre's weekly job club to help young people into work.

Moorhouse needs all the financial support that she can get. Because of a long-standing, inherited debt problem, the Landmark Centre is in a precarious financial situation. Moorhouse is not able to apply for major donor funding and has to gather revenue however she can, mostly by hiring out rooms in the building. She has cut down staff members to three (herself, an assistant and a cleaner) and depends on volunteers to support the rest of the work. "We have a boot fair here, once a month, and I have a lady sitting on the door. She won't let people in unless they've put a few pennies in the box. That can raise me £25 in a morning."

Moorhouse looks, for a moment, a little desperate - her monthly fuel bills alone are more than £2,000. But she is evidently indefatigable. She does the job because she loves it and feels a duty and deep attachment to the area. She was born and grew up in Woodnesborough, a nearby village surrounded by apple orchards.

It seems the Landmark Centre is already a beacon of the big society. "That's what we say . . . We're a prime example." She has been working with mental health teams and Sure Start programmes for years, she says: a perfect example of local, interagency collaboration. The council had apparently been planning to open a new community centre in Dover modelled on hers - it was going to be called "Landmark II" - but the funding was cut.

The irony is not lost on Moorhouse. The day after we talk, she will be having a meeting with someone who runs a mental health group locally. Its property is being sold and now it has nowhere to go. "At the moment, the group meets three times a week and [for members] that's their lifeline. If someone with mental health issues suddenly loses their lifeline, there can be dire consequences."

Such financial insecurity seems to be common in this part of Kent. For Moorhouse, her set-up at the centre in Deal is, in essence, "hand to mouth". She has spoken to the council and it has offered its continued support, but she has yet to see what that means. For the moment, she will ignore the rhetoric and "get on with it" in her usual way.

You can understand why people in east Kent are sceptical of David Cameron's attempts to cut back the state and conjure up in its place
a big society. The overstretched, overworked managers of the Betteshanger Social Club and Deal's Landmark Centre already rely on the goodwill of countless volunteers - those who give up their time and money to make tea, run clubs and set up football academies.

These aren't overnight projects but established efforts, conceived long before the formation of this government and sustained by the support of a willing community. They don't need a directive to tell them to do what they are already doing - what any community with a sense of togetherness does. What they need is enough backing from the state to stay open so that they can continue to serve those who depend on them.

Mick finishes his tea at the Betteshanger Social Club. He says he was watching the ITV morning show Daybreak and it "latched on to Cameron's . . . What's he trying again?" He tries to remember the phrase. "Volunteering for everything." He goes on to recount the film that the programme had shown, about people going into schools to volunteer as teaching assistants. "But now, that's somebody else's job gone," Mick says. "The more people volunteer to do these things, the less people are going to have a chance to work. This is what upsets me."

Mick isn't especially political. He imagines that if he won the Lottery he might morph into a "raging Tory" - a notion that he finds amusing. But Brian shakes his head. "We're all in this together," he says and laughs.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
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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.”