Ask most people what it is from Jesus’s teachings that they remember and they’ll probably say something about loving your neighbour and looking after the poor. It’s a little disconcerting, then, that the Christian movements both here and in the USA clearly feel most at home on the right of the political spectrum.
A handful of opinion polls paints the picture of what is going on in America: in 2004, 70 per cent of traditional evangelicals were Republican as opposed to only 20 per cent who were Democrats (Pew Forum poll); the majority of members of the Tea Party support the social agenda of the religious conservatives with heavy opposition to same-sex marriages and abortion (2011, Pew); non-believers are one and a half times more likely to believe that the earth is subject to global warming than are Christians (2010, Pew).
For the religious right, the Land of the Free will never become the Land of the Free Hand-outs. The Christian movement is a powerful constituency represented by various lobby groups which push for a low-tax agenda. And in parts of the country the movement is dominated by the mega-churches which preach the “Prosperity Gospel”, that God wants us to be rich.
In Britain the position is less extreme, but still pronounced. The Church of England’s label as the Conservative Party at prayer is admittedly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, the agendas of the Christian church and the political right-wing make comfortable bed-fellows. You know the kind of thing: anti-abortion, anti-unions, opposed to same-sex marriage and tough on crime. If, at this very moment, there is a church minister recruited straight from Central Casting pouring tea in a quaint village vicarage somewhere in the south west of England, his china cup and saucer are more likely to be delicately balanced on a copy of the Spectator than the New Statesman.
As for the New Atheists, when they warn of the social ills of religion, it is clear that their own humanist heaven on earth would be headed up by the kind of socially-progressive Guardian-reader to whom your typical tabloid editor would hardly give the time of day. (Even Christopher Hitchens with his famed views on foreign interventions claims to remain a Marxist at heart.) And it should be no surprise that the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream party whose leader is openly an atheist. It was presumably for these reasons that before last year’s general election Richard Dawkins took the surprising step of publicly endorsing the party.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when a country has an official religion (such as the UK) or an unofficial one (as in the case of the USA), one cannot be surprised that those who adopt it are more likely to be the small-C conservatives who are willing to toe the line drawn by the state. But last year controversial evolutionary psychologist Satosha Kanazawa offered another explanation. In a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, Kanazawa reported a link between atheism and social liberalism. Contentiously he suggested that they are the traits spawned by higher intelligence. His explanation was that to look after our own kin and to believe in God carried evolutionary survival benefits which today’s more intelligent people are willing to reject.
No doubt Kanazawa would be among the first to admit that the list of the Christian intelligentsia is both long and impressive. Even so, there is much to be said for his theory. Religion is grounded in faith. According to Luke 18:17, Jesus urged us to receive the Kingdom of God, not by persuading ourselves with clever arguments, but rather as a little child would do. To be religious can be either passive (such as by continuing the religion handed down by one’s parents or unthinkingly adopting the one foisted on us by society) or it can involve taking an active step such as that associated with born-again fundamentalism. Either way, it is more likely to be based on faith as opposed to argument. Some atheists reject God for the flimsiest of reasons, but their decision is nevertheless generally dictated by reason rather than faith. At a minimum, they can be expected to be more questioning than their religious counterparts. After all it is the atheist movement which has deep-rooted connections with free-thinking and critical thinking philosophies.
And so the events of the last fortnight must come as a surprise. Take AC Grayling. The human rights philosopher and atheist is now on the receiving end of criticism unimaginable a few weeks ago. He is to be the Master of the privately-funded educational institution New College of the Humanities, London. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it’s a move which hardly smacks of the leftist leanings of those who share his theology. What’s more, the most celebrated member to his professoriate is Richard Dawkins.
And to complete the volte face of the God Debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned on these very pages that the coalition government is committing the country to “radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted”. This led to one of the Telegraph’s most bizarre headlines a couple of days later: “David Cameron: I profoundly disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury.” I bet he does.
Maybe AC Grayling and the Archbishop are unintentionally teaching their supporters a lesson. It can hardly be in the interests of anyone involved in the God Debate if those who have yet to place a cross on the giant voting slip in the sky assume that a belief in various metaphysical matters carries with it a mandatory political affiliation.
If it did, perhaps most of us would choose agnosticism.
Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org