It’s hard to look on Monty Python’s bright side of life when observing religious argument in Cambridge. Infinitely complex issues are swatted away by amateur philosophers with a “God? Oh pur-leese”, when the situation is clearly about as black and white as James Watson’s list of favourite intellectuals. But to see the urgent need for progress, just recall the recent Union debate where Douglas Murray silenced the chamber by directly insulting Muhammad. No boos or hisses, no opposing points- just silence, as if Murray had committed the unpardonable sin. How can a subject become immune from insult in the Cambridge Union? So here’s my take, born mostly out of frustration at being either insulted or misrepresented for my beliefs.
Let’s first expose a harmful myth, bounded around all too often by both aloof Anglicans and atheists: this is not a ‘Christian country’. Aside from obvious objections, this notion makes Christianity no more than a set of outdated morals. Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that passing legislation to restrict abortion rights was as much Jesus’ goal as was gaining political office. He aimed for the individual soul, not the courts.
I’m not saying that the two never meet- I don’t want a watered down, nervous parody of faith. The recent oppression of Christian Unions in the UK was frightening and unacceptable- but unacceptable politically, not religiously. Scholars and politicians should logically have been fighting the CUs’ corner as much as church leaders. I’m saying modernity tends to see faith as merely a moral worldview that is imposed on others through ‘conservatism’. Ironically, this is why I, a strong Christian, sympathise with those who scaremonger about the American Christian Right. Falwell missed the point – the same liberalism allowing freedom of religion allows abortions; and in any case, forcing someone to have a child isn’t going to change their spiritual beliefs. But the more I talk to Christians smarter than the average Dubya, the more I find this view gaining popularity, even amongst “fundamentalists”.
So now to the self-appointed ‘Brights’ (although considering the amount of schoolboy theological errors in ‘The God Delusion’, I’d suggest a misnomer). I’m afraid you too need a good talking to. Dawkins’ stance achieves little because, as Cambridge demonstrates, however much derision or argument is fired at its followers, faith will never perish. The doomsayers of atheism’s 1960s heyday were as myopic as those who still talk of Darwin’s deathbed conversion or the religion of pre-Enlightenment scientists as if they verify claims of faith. Even if the Darwin myth were true (it isn’t), evolution would remain an unaffected challenge. Newton and Galileo had no choice. But if these simple facts are to be affirmed, so to must the fact that modern intellectual giants like Francis Collins, Alistair McGrath and our very own Polkinghorne deserve more than atheists’ snivelling contempt.
So what then, you might ask, do I suggest? The first thing, before we all spontaneously combust with frustration, is to stop whining. Stop whining about the Muhammad cartoons. If a Muslim told me to stop drinking alcohol or to pray five times a day, I would laugh. Our moral spheres are our own. Stop whining about Jerry Springer- God has bigger fish to fry. And atheists, you are by no means immune. Stop whining about someone giving you a gospel in the CICCU mission’s week. We are in the centre of free speech in the UK, and if we are so insecure in our convictions that we respond angrily to someone giving us a Bible or a copy of ‘The God Delusion’, perhaps we need to reconsider our certainties.
Apart from that, whining is annoying and useless. Atheists, faith isn’t going to go away, however much you throw churlish insults. Christians, this isn’t a theocracy but a liberal country that allows us to practice our faith freely and tell others about it. Pressuring for laws that force people to conform to our principles won’t populate Heaven, it will create more people who are ‘sort of Christian’, in that they believe things were “much better in the good old days”. Remember Gladstone’s classic speech to the Commons on behalf of Bradlaugh, the first atheist MP- he reminded Christians that the critical danger to faith wasn’t atheism, but “tepid theism”. So readers, whistle along with me if you know it: “Always look on the bright side of life”, and I’ll cut out the whining if you will too. Then, maybe Dawkins might have a reason to be a little less depressing.