On Baroness Warsi’s resignation from the UK government, David Cameron would have done best to drop the “Minister of Faith” role that he had created for her, but instead handed it over to Eric Pickles. Pickles, we recall, is another minister who thinks that Christians should still have special privileges in the UK. Informing us that Britain is a “Christian nation” and that atheists should “get over it”, he gloated that he has “stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings”.
As ever, anyone who believes in church–state separation and a secular, religiously neutral government is a “militant”, while handing ever more state schools over to be run by churches, awarding them an exemption from the Equality Act, thus allowing them to discriminate against non-religious families, and passing laws violating religious liberty by requiring school kids to worship the Christian god, is merely defending “traditional British values”.
Thus The Telegraph, defending compulsory religion in schools, against the wishes of the majority of parents, and school governors (and indeed the Church of England!), states that “There can be few things in life less harmful than the gentle Christian values learnt by children during school assemblies” and that “the British values of which we hear so much are based on ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs and the teachings of the Bible”.
Similarly, in his latest diatribe, Pickles rails against “aggressive secularists” who “advocate the suppression of religion in the public sphere”. (The honest way of phrasing that would be: “advocate the removal of special privileges for religion in the public sphere”.)
Pickles justifies the special role for religion from the fact that many of the “values that define our country” are “founded in faith” and that “our defence of freedom, the rule of law and the evolution of our democracy have all grown from the seedbed of faith”.
So let’s review the values and principles that underpin our society today, and ask, do they indeed derive from the Bible? Let’s start with the Ten Commandments. How many of them are part of our laws today? About two and a half. And those ones (prohibitions on murder, stealing and lying in court) are common to just about every human law code, including the oldest we know of, such as the Code of Ur-Nammu, which long predate the time of Moses.
What about a fundamental principle such as democracy? Does that derive from the Bible? Well, no, it started in pagan Greece, then lapsed in Europe, and indeed about 90 per cent of the Christian era had passed before democracy began to take hold again in Europe, coinciding with the beginning of the decline of Christianity in the West. Through most of the medieval era the Church preferred the idea of the Church and Church-anointed kings simply telling people what to do.
An independent judiciary? Does that concept derive from the Bible? Well, no, it doesn’t. Habeas Corpus? No. Trial by peers? No. Right to hear evidence against you? No. Freedom from unlawful seizure of goods by the government? No. Presumption of innocence? No. I may be remiss in my knowledge of the Bible, but I can’t think of any Biblical texts expounding any of these doctrines.
How about the right to free speech? The right to criticise government and religion? Freedom of conscience, the right to apostasy, to blasphemy? No, quite the opposite. Through all the period when the church was powerful enough to control what people said, it did so, and used its full might to repress any criticism of itself. Punishments as severe as execution for blasphemy and heresy were routine features of Christendom, until The Enlightenment when the churches began to lose their power.
Slavery. Now surely slavery is an example of the good of Christianity, a realisation of the equality of man deriving from Biblical values? Well no, the Bible accepts slavery and never condemns it. Further, the Atlantic Slave Trade, conducted by Christians in Christian nations, was the most abject and desperate form of slavery the world has known. Yes, the people who eventually abolished slavery — after 90% of Christendom had already passed — were Christians, but those who supported and perpetuated slavery were also Christians. The most Christian part of the most Christian nation in Christendom fought a war to be allowed to continue slavery.
That was 1500 years after the Roman Emperor had converted to Christianity and adopted it as the state religion. As an elderly dame from a Southern state declared, slavery was God’s appointed order, and could not possible be counter to the Bible, since she had attended church every week for her entire life, and not once heard the preacher denounce slavery.
How about the treatment of children? For most of Christendom, children were treated as chattels of their father with few or no rights. It was only after 90 per cent of Christendom that society began to insist that they be educated, that they not be sent out to work, that they receive health care, that they not be beaten. Again, none of this derives from Christianity, which for 1800 years saw little wrong with treating children as chattels.
We can say the same thing about women. In the UK Women only got to vote from 1928. That means nineteen hundred and twenty eight years after the (supposed) birth of Jesus. So of course all the credit should go to the Christian religion!
Sure, you can look back through history, pick out the bits you like, pick out some particular Christians, and declare that all such advances came from Christians inspired by Christianity, but equally you can pick as many disreputable deeds done in the name of Christianity and as many Christians who opposed the advances.
Democracy, the right to influence government, and the equality of women are central planks of British values today, so, if those really did come from Christianity, how come 1900 years of Christianity had passed before Christians realised it?
Currently, the Western world is going through a moral advance in treating gay people as fully equal members of society. Let me guess, in a few decades from now, Christians will start making the claim that the Churches were the ones in the forefront of that movement, driving it though against secular opposition!
Sorry, Mr Pickles, more or less none of British values derive from Christianity. The British values that do overlap with Christianity are those that are common to all of humanity. Most of the rest arose, yes, in a Christian nation, but not from Christianity. Mostly they arose from an awakening humanist conception that was opposed by the religious establishment.
In the medieval theology that dominated most of the history of Christendom, this earthly life was brutish and short and only a precursor to the life that really mattered. If people suffered on Earth then that was their lot, and helped to ensure that they were redeemed from sin. It was humanists, who regarded this earthly life as the only we have, and thus realised that this life is the one that matters, who started to give prime concern to the quality of life of ourselves and of our fellow humans.