On the same day that the nation woke up to the news that Christopher Hitchens had died our Prime Minister gave a speech in Oxford to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
That these two items of news should have followed on from one another on the BBC 10 o’clock news was striking.
Hitchens in his book God is not great argued that religion poisons everything. For Hitchens religion is not just wrong it is dangerous and damaging to society.
Cameron’s speech flatly contradicted everything Hitchens stood for when he said:
We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.
So who is right?
It is important to read Cameron’s speech in full to understand what he is and isn’t saying.
1. He was NOT saying that the majority of people in our country are Christians (although we should not entirely disregard the fact that in the 2001 census 71% of the British population chose to define themselves as Christian). It is not particularly clear in what sense Cameron regards himself as a Christian for example.
2. Nor was he saying that Britain as a Christian country is intolerant of people of other faiths. Quite the opposite it is Christian countries that have demonstrated a tolerance for other faiths.
Those who say being a Christian country is doing down other faiths simply don’t understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.
The tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.
That could certainly not be said of Muslim countries where freedom to convert from Islam to Christianity is illegal and those who do face severe sanctions.
And although I have no way of assessing his claim it was striking that Cameron also said:
Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France.
What was Cameron’s point then?
Essentially it was this:
The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.”
Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.
So David Bentley Hart in his work Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies rightly concludes:
Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.
It is very hard to imagine what the world would have looked like without Christianity. The nearest we can get is by asking how are countries that have long history of Christian faith and worship different from those that do not.
This post can’t possibly do the work of establishing that Christianity has had a profound influence for good that we all benefit from whether we acknowledge that origin or not. For that you must look elsewhere. Perhaps with Bentley Hart’s book or maybe this one God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam which has been short-listed for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010
How should we respond as Christians to the speech?
At least three things come to mind.
1. David Cameron in his speech gave Christians ‘permission’ to openly acknowledge the God who has blessed our nation in ways not even we Christians easily remember. It is often the case that it is those who have emigrated to our country from other parts of the world who can see what we take for granted. They rejoice in the rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights, isn’t it time we thanked God for them too!
2. Christians also have been given permission by Cameron to challenge Government positions that would seek to undermine this all to valuable heritage for instance in the proposed attempt to redefine marriage.
3. The speech was also a repost to the new atheism which wants to rewrite history by distorting the contribution of a thousand years of Christianity in our country. Such a denial of history creates a culture in which scepticism flourishes. Cynic and doubter alike would do well to be reminded, and we can help in this, that the life that we enjoy and celebrate is simply NOT to be found in nations that are not built on a Christian foundation. There are uniquely Judeo-Christian values and at least in that sense Britain remains a Christian country.
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