a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Cherie Booth’s take on Christianity’s future fails to address the boring issue

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Cherie Booth/Blair, with consort

There’s no better way to get your blood boiling of a Sunday morning than to watch some of the History of Christianity docos they’re showing, one of which I treated in detail here. Recently, Cherie Blair, high-flying lawyer and wife of Britain’s former PM, fronted up for what was probably the last of them on the future of Christianity.

My main recollection of Blair in recent years was of Anthony Grayling, the philosopher, taking her to task for allowing her religious convictions to interfere with her sentencing approach as a magistrate. Grayling’s critique of Blair and her supporters is devastating, and well worth reading. Blair [or perhaps I should call her Cherie Booth, her name as a magistrate] is a Catholic, but presumably, as a Laborite, not a conservative one, so one might hope for a useful critique, and the program begins promisingly enough, with a soft-spoken chap [whose woollen scarf I suspect hides a clerical collar] ruefully admitting that ‘the Catholic Church has opposed, with all its energy, everything modern’. Booth goes on to speak about Christianity’s fading appeal in western Europe, which she associates with ‘a world obsessed by money and material goods’, simply by mentioning the decline and the obsession in the same breath, a common ‘habit’ among the religious. The fact is that the human world is no more or less obsessed with money, status and worldly power than it has ever been, as even the most cursory knowledge of history will tell you. Of course, with the growth of the scientific perspective, particularly in that part of the world, we have become much more interested in material things, as opposed to non-material things, about which we can say or know nothing for sure, and about which we prefer to remain silent and sceptical. This particular obsession with the material world, in all its endless complexity, has yielded amazing results indeed.

Later, Booth mentions, almost en passant, that Christians are ‘often being marginalized’ in western Europe. This is probably true, and in my view, definitely a good thing. For example the Pope is increasingly treated by the western press as an extremist buffoon, and in this the press is only following public opinion. And if the Pope were to be treated as a central figure, wise and true, we would be living in an unbearably different world, especially for women. As for the marginalization of other Christians, yes, we’re at last beginning to recognise that professing to a religious belief doesn’t make you an expert on anything in the real world, and people are expected to justify their opinions and their decisions with something more substantial than mere faith. This is surely as it should be, and it makes for better understanding all round.

Booth ponders this decline, and comes up with an explanation which I think is fatally flawed if not completely wrong. She blames what she sees as Christian complicity in the horrific European wars of the twentieth century. ‘The last 100 years,’ she says, ‘have seen human suffering on an unprecedented scale’. It’s a well-worn theme, but it’s funny how truisms aren’t always true. Christian complicity in human suffering has gone on for some 1600 years, ever since the religion was backed by state power. The fact is that despite those two horrific European conflagrations, the twentieth century saw massive changes in western society – changes to the status of women and children, changes in our understanding of ‘race’ and ethnic ‘otherness’, changes in our attitude to war and conflict, the growth of an internationalist movement, all of which have been civilizing influences, and none of which have been influenced by religion.

In the eighteenth century, Britain and western Europe were far more Christian and god-besotted than they are today, yet they were far more brutal places. Take this description of 1760s London, from the historian Simon Schama:

London was full of the spectacle of pain. Sluggish cart horses were mercilessly flogged until they dropped; vagrant beggars were whipped until their backs had become beefsteaks; felons were stoned in the public pillory and sometimes died as they sat there; servants, both male and female, were cuffed and smacked in public; schoolboys were thrashed for insolence or troublesome high spirits; men caught by the press gangs were beaten with sticks as they were hauled off to the waiting ships.

This was the kind of banal inhumanity you might witness just walking down a London street – though hopefully not all on the same day. Go back a previous century, to the English civil war days, and you would find even more brutality and corruption – and a greater god-besottedness. Read Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, a work full of primary source descriptions, for proof of this. There’s no evidence from this that ‘deep religiousness’ makes us, or has the potential to make us, more humane. Quite the contrary in fact. What has actually made us more humane is deeper knowledge, and deeper understanding. These have also made us less religious.

However, it might well be that the recorded behaviour of the Catholic Church and other organised religions during these twentieth century wars have awakened more educated people to the questionable role of religion as a civilizing and pacifying force. Certainly not too many educated westerners would be taken in by Booth’s mollifying comment, after talking about the Christian v Christian bloodbath of the first world war, that Christian nations united to fight fascism in the second world war. This is disingenuous in the extreme. If you really need to over-simplify WW2, Christianity v Fascism won’t cut it. Democracy v Demagoguery fits quite a bit better. After all, one of those fascist nations was Italy, home of the Catholic institution Booth so keenly subscribes to. And that particular Church felt quite comfortable with fascism for years, unsurprisingly since it shares the same authoritarian, anti-democratic approach to socio-political issues. The Catholic Church, throughout the nineteenth century, was the most implacable foe of every budding democratic movement in Europe, and fully supportive of every absolute monarch who professed the ‘correct’ faith. The battle against fascism had nothing whatever to do with Christianity.

Yet Booth continues to use this sort of rhetoric. The holocaust was European history’s ‘most godless act’, she tells us, and by this she presumably means ‘most evil’, as if the Judeo-Christian god must be absent when heinous acts are committed, rather than present and perpetrating, as in The Flood, or the slaughter of all the people inhabiting the promised land before the Israelites. This particular god has form as a mass-murderer.

The story of the heroic Dietrich Boenhoffer is of course moving but well-known, and the only point Booth seems to make with it is that some Christians stood up to the Nazis, while others collaborated. Even her claim that it’s a Christian duty to stand up for the oppressed doesn’t get too much backing from the gospels. Jesus might bless the poor in spirit, whatever that might mean, but he doesn’t urge his followers to stand up against oppressive masters, or to free the slaves. As usual, this is about believing what you want to believe the gospels actually say.

Next in her search for causes Booth moves on to the sixties, and the re-evaluation of all values in the west. This seems to me a little closer to the heart of the matter. It would be hard to pinpoint the reasons for all the upheavals of the sixties, but I don’t think it can be denied that it was the most seminal decade of the twentieth century with respect to social and cultural attitudes. It was a real ‘breaking out’, a liberation, bringing many positives and negatives in its train. Authority became something automatically questioned, if not derided, and the most traditional authorities, such as the Catholic Church, suffered most. However, we get nothing more than a nod to the sixties from Booth, and some statistics to indicate that, since 1964, professed religious belief has plummeted quite spectacularly in Britain and Europe. She interviews some old Catholic friends from her youth in Liverpool, and we get a clear picture of their disillusionment about the Church’s attitudes and behaviour since Vatican II, especially as it relates to women. All of this is fine, though it’s interspersed with claims about the gospel message, which I as a close reader of the gospels would dispute. There are few, if any timeless values in the gospel. Its most touted ‘timeless value’, the golden rule, is part of every religion and has been reiterated in every human culture ever developed, whether literate or not, just as it has been followed by none of them, as a rule. But we’re clearly not going to get anything deep about human nature from this program.

As expected, Booth turns to that haven of the most wild and wonderful Christian beliefs, the USA, for solutions to Christianity’s apparent malaise. She interviews some people associated with a flourishing ecumenical  ‘temple’ in Chicago and finds its inclusiveness a far cry from the traditionalism, elitism and rigid authoritarianism of European Catholicism. What I get from this is that particular moral strictures are eschewed in favour of ‘worship’. The Lord’s ‘lordiness’ is made much of, and you can make of that what you will. And of course, this lord loves you to bits, like no mere human can, and so deserves your worship. She interviews former First Lady Laura Bush and they discuss the anti-establishment clause of the first amendment, which would naturally appeal to Booth, since the established religion in Britain is the one that persecuted Catholics for centuries. To me, though, the most interesting comment in that conversation went unexplored – the point, made by Bush, that Tony Blair could not say ‘God bless our country’, because of the criticism this would engender. The unexplored issue here is, of course, that US Presidents can get away with such remarks, and in fact would be heavily criticised for not saying it on a regular basis. I’m not sure that it was always thus in the USA.

It’s true of course that Christianity has a very different dynamic in the New World. It is overwhelmingly Protestant, in the true meaning of that term. Simon Schama, in Rough Crossings and other works, documents the importance of the Black Church in providing solidarity and hope to slaves and ex-slaves from the late eighteenth century onwards. Most of the white anti-slavery activists too were right reverend gentlemen, and this activism clearly continued right through to the modern civil rights movement. The churches largely eschewed traditionalism and took a populist line, always ready to adapt to styles of relating to their multi-facetedly personal deity. The massive US churches of today succeed by being welcoming and non-threatening, by emphasising love, sharing and belonging. And why not belong? There’s an instant network there for socialising as well as business, it’s all laid on, and this is precisely what many critics say atheists miss out on, as punishment for their stubborn mean-spiritedness and contrarianism. And you even get to feel that it somehow must be true that Gaad has blessed your country.

So Booth spends the rest of the program interviewing religious Americans and nodding agreement at their ecumenism, their emphasis on community and love and simple faith, their rejection of traditional rituals and vestments, and then interviewing religious Brits and nodding agreement at their arguments for change and renewal and reconnection with the spirit of Jesus, but as she herself appears to show no sign of giving up her staunch, traditional Catholicism and embracing a broader non-denominational Christianity, I can’t help but feel a half-heartedness in the whole exercise.

And of course, the whole program misses the point, as usual. The point is that the decline of Christianity in the west, and the rise of secularism, is powerfully connected to the rise of knowledge. Even in the apparently god-besotted USA there’s a major divide between believers and unbelievers which corresponds to education levels and scientific literacy. Knowledge, and its unfettered pursuit, has ever been the enemy of religion. The author of that episode in Genesis about the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the state of innocence knew this well enough. Yet Booth says nothing whatsoever about this in her program. Towards the end of it she interviews another Catholic cleric, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who says ‘if you take God out of society, which is what some of the secularists and atheists want to do, then it seems to me you have a society which, in my view, is very dangerous.’ The only way I can make sense of such a statement, which is not backed by any evidence [Connor’s god has indeed been largely removed from many western nations, with no obvious harm done], is by assuming Connor knows, or thinks he knows, that his god exists. If you think that, then no amount of knowledge, historical, scientific or psychological, about how the world is or how it functions, will sway you from your sense of impending doom, I suppose, at others’ indifference to your supernatural father-figure, your Lord and Master.

This brings me to the boring question. Alain de Botton, in an apparently controversial book, Religion for atheists: a non-believers’ guide to the uses of religion, claims that ‘the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether the whole thing is ‘true”. We’ve been here many times before, and I’ve argued something along these lines myself, especially vis-a-vis ‘small religions’, religions which can’t be separated from cultural identity, religio-cultural practices that bind small communities together and without which things fall apart for them. But it’s surely difficult to avoid a patronising air when advocating the protection of or preservation of religious beliefs and practices you know to be false or useless. It’s not like preserving regional languages, where truth doesn’t come into it. Truth is the essential, boring question. You just can’t get away from it. I don’t reject religion for any other reason than that, from all that I know, it is completely unconvincing to me as a set of truth-claims. Given this, the sense of community it offers, enticing though it is, comes a very very distant second. And this is why I see little point in Cherie Booth’s presentation, which simply fails to address the boring issue.

Written by stewart henderson

March 11, 2012 at 9:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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