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Why even atheists think like Christians

For a millennium, to live in the West has been to live in a society saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions.

 

In the summer of 1940, with Britain staring down the barrel of the gravest crisis in her history, Stanley Baldwin was at prayer. His critics would have said that he had much to pray about. As prime minister (he was succeeded by Neville Chamberlain in 1937) he had promoted appeasement over rearmament, and signally failed to ready his country for the struggle with Nazi Germany. Baldwin, three years out of office, had plenty of time to ponder the workings of providence. When British troops retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk, he prayed for them – “and never did prayer seem to be more speedily answered to the full”. Then, with France on the brink of military collapse, he prayed again – and the French government promptly surrendered. What was the Almighty up to? Writing on 23 July to Lord Halifax, the devoutly Christian grandee who two months earlier had effectively ceded the premiership to Winston Churchill, Baldwin sought to make sense of God’s mysterious way. “I thought much, and when I went to bed I lay for a long time vividly awake.” Whatever happened, he concluded, however calamitous, it had to be accepted as God’s will.

Even by the standards of other Tory politicians, Baldwin’s style had always been tweedy, backward-looking, complacent. With his Victorian wing collars and his fondness for hymning plough teams as the one eternal sight of England, his premiership had provided reassurance to voters disoriented by rapid change that Britain was Britain still. Naturally, there were plenty on both right and left who despised this. Capitalists enthused by the prospects that technology offered them for enrichment and communists dreaming of a workers’ paradise had no time for romantic guff about plough teams. By 1940, with a hostile power bristling with Panzers and Stukas massed on the opposite side of the Channel, the inadequacies of Baldwin’s nostalgic conservatism stood starkly revealed. That summer, he found himself booed in the streets. As he boarded a train, no one rose to offer him a seat.

Yet when Baldwin wrote to Halifax wondering at “what mites” he and all his countrymen were, and how they could never hope to see God’s plan – “a plan on such a scale that it must be incomprehensible” – he was not indulging in mere nostalgia. His anguish was too great for that. To be sure, it was hallowed for him by his awareness that others before him had prayed in a similar spirit. In his mingled dread and his groping after reassurance that God had not abandoned England, he stood in a line of
descent that was older than England itself. Back in the ninth century, King Alfred – during whose reign the prospect of defying Viking conquest had hung by a thread – mournfully noted how “everything was ransacked and burned”, while never doubting the divinely appointed character of his mission to repair the damage. Two and a half centuries previously, the Venerable Bede – alert as only a lifelong student of scripture could be to the humbling of those who scorned the Almighty – had also, in his great history of the English Church, cast the glamour of the angelic over all those who had made their exodus to Britain across the northern sea: Saxon and Angle and Jute. When, in the generations that followed
Alfred, a united kingdom of England came to be forged, it was Bede’s history that provided it with a sense of ancestry that reached back beyond its foundation. For a thousand years and more, to be English had been to live with an identity that was, in its fundamentals, Christian. It was – as Baldwin well understood – simultaneously to fear God’s wrath and to trust in His providence.

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Millions across the country – as Baldwin observed to Halifax in his letter – had been joining with him in prayer. It was a habit that came naturally to the British. That summer, as their army was evacuated from Dunkirk and their coastline readied for invasion, most of those speaking in their dread and their hopes to the Christian God were doing so because they had been raised to believe that they would be heard. So in turn had their parents been raised, and their parents before them. Down the generations, down the centuries, down the millennia the practice of it had been passed. Only Jews could boast anything comparable: a living tradition that could be traced back through an unbroken line back to antiquity, and the long-vanished civilisation of the Roman empire.

Prayer, of course, was not all that Christianity had taught. Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, its creed had sent reverberations across the world. Back in its earliest days, Christianity had brought to the various provinces ruled by Caesar startling and momentous claims: that humans were fashioned in the image of a sole and all-powerful creator; that his Son had died equally for everyone; that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Remarkably, the same imperial order that had tortured Jesus to death had come in time to enshrine him as a god. The moral and imaginative upheaval that resulted from this startling development had not ceased with the collapse of Roman power. Christianity was at once the most enduring legacy of classical antiquity, and the index of its transformation.


Look back in anger: Stanley Baldwin’s nostalgic view left Britain vulnerable for the coming war. Len Putnam/AP/Shutterstock  

In the Middle Ages, no civilisation in Eurasia had been as congruent with a single dominant set of beliefs as was the Latin West with its own distinctive form of the faith. Elsewhere, whether in the lands of Islam, or in India, or in China, there had been various understandings of the divine, and numerous institutions that had served to define them: but in Europe, in the lands that acknowledged the primacy of the pope, there had been only the occasional community of Jews to disrupt the otherwise total monopoly of the Church.

From dawn to dusk, from the hour of their birth to the very last drawing of their breath, the men and women of medieval Europe had duly absorbed its assumptions into their bones. Many of these, promulgated by daring ideologues who in the late 11th century had seized control of the commanding heights of the Roman Church, and installed radicals of the calibre of Gregory VII and Urban II as pope, would have seemed strange to earlier generations of Christians. Notions as radical as they were contingent – that the whole of society might be reformed and born again, that it might be divided between the sacred and a dimension termed the “secular”, that all who dwelt in it, even the very poorest, had “rights” – had come over the course of the centuries to be taken for granted. In time, indeed, they had served to fuel yet further upheavals: the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution commemorated as the Enlightenment. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to enfold within its embrace every other possible way of seeing the world; the claim to a universalism that was culturally highly specific. That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths.

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What today we term “the West” was less the heir of Latin Christendom than its continuation. Never, perhaps, had this been felt with a more visceral and heart-stopping sense of certainty than in 1940. Not since the age of Alfred had Britain faced an enemy that, scorning to pay even lip-service to Christian values, regarded them with contempt and loathing. Although Hitler had initially been prepared to tread carefully – and even, in 1933, to sign a concordat with the papacy – he had never had any intention of holding to it for long. To believe that God had become man and suffered the death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat. This, in Nazi opinion, had resulted in any number of grotesque excrescences.

“Harping on and on that God died on the cross out of pity for the weak, the sick and sinners, Christians then demand that the genetically diseased be kept alive in the name of a doctrine of pity that goes against nature, and of a misconceived notion of humanity.”  This, the considered judgement of an SS magazine in 1939, was the authentic voice of Hitler, the SS’s master.

The strong had both a duty and an obligation to eliminate the weak. And so in a similar manner, Hitler believed, did the Nordic race have responsibility to cleanse itself of racial taint. When Pope Pius XII, in October 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland, quoted Genesis to rebuke those who would forget that humanity had a common origin, and that all the peoples of the world had a duty of charity to one another, the response from Nazi theorists was vituperative. To them, it appeared self-evident that universal morality was a fraud. The SS officer Albrecht Hartl fulminated: “Can we still tolerate our children being obliged to learn that Jews and Negroes, just like Germans or Romans, are descended from Adam and Eve, all because a Jewish myth says so?”

Not merely pernicious, the doctrine that all are one in Christ ranked as an outrage against the fundamentals of science. Among the SS, in particular, the destruction of Christianity came to be regarded as a vocation. Heinrich Himmler, their commander, duly plotted a 50-year programme that he trusted would utterly erase it. Otherwise, he dreaded, it would continue to prove the bane of the Nordic race.

As the British braced themselves for the great battle they knew to be fast approaching, they realised that much more than the survival of their own country lay at stake. In the Nazis, they faced a regime committed to the repudiation of the most fundamental tenants of their – and Europe’s – foundational faith: the oneness of the human race, and the obligation of care for the weak and the suffering. It was not necessary to be a practising or even a believing Christian to recognise this. Churchill, who famously described himself as a buttress of the Church rather than a pillar – supporting it from the outside instead of in – never hesitated to articulate this struggle. “Upon this battle,” he declared to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, “depends the survival of Christian civilisation.” A month earlier, in his first address to the nation as prime minister, Churchill had echoed the many Christians throughout British history, from Bede to Baldwin, who had seen their country both as a new Israel and yet as utterly dependent upon divine providence: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

Today, as the epic struggle faced by Britain in 1940 repeats itself as farce, it is hard to imagine any British politician quoting scripture (in this case the book of the Maccabees) in a similar manner. The concept of a specifically Christian nationhood, one powerful enough still within living memory for it repeatedly to have provided Churchill with his rallying cry, has come to seem no less antiquated than the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill. Dimly, like the memory of an amputated limb, it can still haunt the convictions of the occasional nationalist: of the supporter of Scottish independence that Scotland is somehow more moral than her Babylonish neighbour; of the Brexiteer that self-determination has been England’s birthright since the Reformation.

Notably, however, Theresa May never thought to invoke it. The church-going daughter of a vicar though she may be, she seldom quoted the Bible while in office. Prime ministers these days – as the spin doctor of the no less devout Tony Blair put it – “don’t do God”.

Not merely unfashionable, the sense that the nation’s history might have been shaped by a specifically Christian providence has become a taboo.

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Already, back in 1940, Churchill was far more ready than most bishops were to invoke this inheritance. Eight decades on, in a country that for the first time since the Viking age has come to be populated by large numbers of people who believe in gods other than the biblical one, it can risk seeming almost offensive. More damagingly even than that, perhaps, it has come to seem bizarre.

Since the 1960s, Britain has changed, in the philosopher Charles Taylor’s words, “from a condition in which belief was the default option, not just for the naive but also for those who knew, considered, talked about atheism; to a condition in which for more and more people unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones”. If many have experienced this as a loss, then there are many others who have experienced it as a liberation. In the Sixties, for the first time, large numbers of people in Britain began to reject the claims of Christianity not just as incredible but as morally wrong. To many progressives, and to feminists and gay activists especially, it came to appear synonymous with everything that they were struggling against: injustice,
bigotry, persecution.

Not that only politicians on the left have benefited from the increasing relaxation of attitudes towards traditional Christian values – Boris Johnson is now prime minister, after all. Johnson’s surest inspiration seems to derive, not from Christian teaching, but from the texts of classical antiquity. Like Machiavelli, who marvelled that “the kings, captains, citizens, legislators and others who in ancient kingdoms and republics laboured for their fatherland” were admired but rarely imitated, he looks unapologetically to Greece and Rome for his political exemplars. If this explains why he can cast Brexit as a national equivalent of Horatius standing on the bridge, then it might also explain the unabashed ambition that has been such a feature of his career. Machiavelli, after all, was drawing chiefly on lessons from classical history when he wrote his two great studies of statecraft: one designed to serve his native city of Florence, and one the ambitions of Cesare Borgia.


Marx was atheist but prone to moral judgements. Alamy

Johnson, then, as a self-proclaimed enthusiast for having his cake and eating it, sees no need to choose between the many and the few – or, to be more precise, between the many and himself. The jovial amorality with which he is capable of stealing the clothes of progressives – be it promoting the children of immigrants to the most senior positions in his cabinet or hurling expletives at the panjandrums of British capitalism – highlights just how important it has always been for the left not just to do the right thing, but to do it for the right reasons.

It is this, of course, that explains the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn. For years, buoyed by his unshakeable conviction that the last should be first and the first last, Corbyn had languished in near-obscurity on the back benches, implacable in his opposition to plutocratic business elites, US imperialists and Zionism. Elevated unexpectedly to the leadership of the Labour Party, he has held true to his convictions. Indeed, the hostility of the wealthy and the powerful has only confirmed his followers in their sense of moral certitude. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24)

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Eight decades after Stanley Baldwin, suffering from insomnia, had pondered in mingled faith and anxiety the workings of divine providence, it is not the current leader of the Conservative Party who is more truly his heir, but the leader of the Labour Party.  Across the dispatch box, a self-confessed admirer of Pericles is confronted by a man who – as his more strident fans have often pointed out – shares his initials with Jesus Christ. That the providence invoked by Corbyn’s followers tends to be Marxist and therefore self-
avowedly materialist makes it no less the heir of Christianity for that. “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need.” So it was recorded in Acts of the Apostles.

Repeatedly, throughout Christian history, the communism practised by the earliest Church had given radicals their inspiration. Marx, when he dismissed questions of morality and justice as epiphenomena, was veiling the true germ of his revolt against capitalism behind jargon. The revulsion that Marx so patently felt at the miseries of artisans evicted on to the streets by their landlords to starve, of children aged before their years by toiling night and day in factories, of labourers worked to death in distant colonies so that the bourgeoisie might have sugar with their tea, made a mockery of his claims to have outgrown moral judgements. As with Marx, so with Corbyn: his interpretation of the world appears fuelled by certainties that have no obvious source in his model of economics. It rises instead from profounder depths. If it offers a liberation from Christianity, then it is one that seems eerily like a recalibration of it.

Viewed from the broad sweep of history, the same seems to apply to the cultural and social upheavals that stemmed from the 1960s. “In the religious history of the West,” historian Hugh McLeod has prophesied, “these years may come to be seen as marking a rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation.”

Yet just as the blooming of the Reformation was sustained by the deep-rooted assumptions of the Christian past, so too is the current “awokening”. To campaign against discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality is to depend on large numbers of people sharing in a common assumption: that everyone possesses an inherent worth. The origins of this principle – as Nietzsche, for one, repeatedly pointed out – lay not in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible.

Ambivalences that have come increasingly to roil British society had always been perfectly manifest in the letters of Paul. Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle had pronounced that “man was the head of woman”; writing to the Galatians, he had exulted that there was no man or woman in Christ. Counterpointing his stern condemnation of same-sex relationships was his rapturous praise of love. The knowledge of what constituted a just society was written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Love, and do as you will. It remains – as it has been for 2,000 years – a formula for revolution.

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For a millennium now, to live in Britain has been to live in a society saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions. Prime ministers today – even the devoutest – may shrink from publicly “doing God”; but across the political spectrum, the motivation of politicians and voters alike remains impossible to understand without also recognising the enduring influence on this country of Christianity. This remains at least as true today as it did eight decades ago, when Stanley Baldwin, tormented by sleepless dread in the depths of the night, sought to reconcile himself to his conviction that God’s will had to be done.

Tom Holland’s new book “Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind” is published by Little, Brown

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war