Life in Bradford is very full on and there is little time at the moment for blogging. But, one of the things I did a couple of days ago was welcome several chaplains to the University of Bradford. I licensed two Anglican ones, but the short welcome ceremony, led by the Vice Chancellor, also included a Muslim and a Quaker. It was a good ‘do’ and it was preceded by a personal re-introduction to the university where I did my first degree.

During the brief ceremony, the Vice Chancellor and I were asked to speak. I spoke about the university as a place for intellectual inquiry, rigorous exploration of the world views of others and the sort of ‘sorting out’ of the commitments deriving from our world views that a university provides the space to encourage. I also had a go at the myth of neutrality – that there is a level of opinion or discourse which is assumed to be neutral and, therefore, suitable for dominating the public discourse – and questioned the thinking behind this. My point was that chaplaincy is not simply about being available to accompany people through their spiritual (or other) crises or experiences, but is also about contributing (encouraging) the sort of intellectual discussion that compels people to look at the world through their own ‘world view lens behind the eyes’ and subject their own faith to scrutiny. Faith that doesn’t ‘work’ in the real world is not a faith worth having.

Contrast this, then, with the pile of nonsense written by very highly paid commentators following Rowan Williams’s guest editorial of the New Statesman. I am behind the game now, but the matter (not just the content of what he said) still raises questions worth articulating.

Several commentators tell the Archbishop that he has no right to comment on this (or, presumably, anything else. In the Sunday Times Minette Marin tells him to ‘go’. She would, wouldn’t she. But her thinking (if that is what it it; it seems to arise from a rather uncritical lack of thinking) appears rooted in the assumption that the Archbishop’s views are delegitimised by virtue of his office or role. What on earth does she think an archbishop’s role is? And does she seriously believe that his views should be dismissed – not on the basis of what they are and whether or not they hold water – simply because he shouldn’t have any?

Marin often assumes that she occupies neutral space along with others whom she assumes share her neutral views of the world. This isn’t only arrogant, it is nonsense. Is her assumed view to be privileged above that of someone who knows at first hand what he is talking about? Are Christian leaders living in a fantasy land of remote abstraction, confused by the luxury of their guarded palaces and enormous salaries? When commentators like this get upset by someone like Rowan arguing for a set of questions to get raised, I think he’s probably hit the mark. People like the idea of prophets, but hate the reality.

It is unbelievable that this degree of uncritically assumed ignorance should be rewarded with a huge salary – something the Archbishop is criticised for by Carol Malone of the News of the World – an organ famed for its serious analysis of current political, social and economic thinking. (For those unsure, that last statement is ironic.) Victoria Coren has demolished Malone’s case and doesn’t need further help from people like me. However, I will admit to having a prejudice here. When I was ‘stung’ on Christmas carols being ‘nonsense’ a couple of years ago, I did the Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV. Malone and Ken Livingstone were on the set with me for this item. Ken Livingstone was fine. Carol Malone went for me big time – which was fine and was her job. I asked her if she had seen the book, let alone read it, or if her entire case was based on a Sunday Telegraph headline. Suffice to say, she hadn’t seen the book and hadn’t read a sentence from it.

I have no idea how huge the salaries of these commentators is. But, if I was their editor, I think I might be asking for a refund. Argue with what the Archbishop says, by all means – that’s important. Understand the status and context of his observations (guest editorial in a magazine in which other invited writers don’t necessarily agree with him). Explore where his views have come from and why they might be fundamentally wrong. But, please don’t assume that he has no right to say anything anywhere other than the privatised sphere of the religiously backward or that a case can be dismissed simply because he has made it.

The privatisation of religion is a nonsense stated by people who assume their own ‘neutrality’ to be self-evidently true (hardly a rational position). Neutrality is a myth and a distraction that offers an excuse for not addressing the arguments.


Apparently some Christian doctors  are fed up with the nonsense about health workers not being allowed to pray or offer spiritual care of patients. Or are we supposed to call them ‘clients’ now? Stories have emerged in the last few years of nurses getting into trouble for offering to pray with sick patients.

Well, according to the BBC website:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them. Medics will tell the British Medical Association conference this week that staff should not be disciplined as long as they handle the issue sensitively. The doctors said recent cases where health workers had got into trouble were making people fearful.

The problem is, according to the doctors:

The General Medical Council code suggests that discussing religion can be part of care provided to patients – as long as the individual’s wishes are respected. But at the start of this year the Department of Health issued guidance warning about proselytising. It said that discussing religion could be interpreted as an attempt to convert which could be construed as a form of harassment.

The debate goes a bit further before (inevitably) the tiny National Secular Society gets invited to put its oar in:

We have to be very careful about how we tread on this issue. If we say it is ok for doctors and nurses to provide spiritual care and pray for patients it can all too quickly get out of hand and we will have staff preaching on the wards. The risk is that it makes patients feel uncomfortable. They may feel compelled to say ‘yes’ thinking their care will suffer. Really, it is an infringement of their privacy. I think we should be very clear that patients should have to ask for this, not offered it.

But Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern said:

Most complaints from patients are about being on a conveyor belt of care. They don’t rate with staff as real people. Offering to say a prayer is a warm and kind thought. Most patients will accept it as such. It is no more offensive than being offered a sleeping pill. You can say thanks but that sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea. But if Christian doctors see this as an opportunity to promote their faith to people at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, that is totally unacceptable.

Two things spring to mind here. First, proselytism in such circumstances has never ever been advocated by any Christian with a shred of sensitivity or good theology. But for doctors or nurses to hold back from taking seriously the spiritual needs of patients is a nonsense of the first order. That is like treating a patient as ‘the cancer in bed one’ or the ‘broken leg in Ward C’ instead of a fully human being whose spirituality influences their mental and physical wellbeing.

Secondly, the NSS just doesn’t get the blindingly obvious fact that negation of a religious worldview does not leave some neutral territory occupied by atheists or secularists. This nonsense really needs to be knocked on the head. Take away a religious/Christian perspective and you are left with a particular perspective on life, death, illness, being human and so on that is positively shaped by particular assumptions  – that are no more valid or invalid than Christian /theistic assumptions.

Of course doctors and nurses should be free to pray for patients where such is requested or where the appropriateness is evidenced by the case history and what is known about the patient. Of course no one should be forced to accept prayer inappropriately. Of course the patient should be protected from mad people – be they religious or atheist. And of course Terry Anderson and the NSS should realise how out of touch they are – speaking only with the authority of a few thousand people on their register.

I would love to see a National Secular Society response to the article by Paul Vallely in June 2009’s Third Way (which doesn’t seem to be available online just now) entitled Being Reasonable. In it he questions why bodies like the NSS ‘spend almost all their energy on rubbishing religion rather than telling us what distinctive insights humanism has to offer contemporary society.’ He decries the ‘false polarity between an intolerant rationalism and an oppressive religiosity.’ He concludes with an appeal for ‘an articulation from the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society of the distinct contribution that humanism can make to modern moral dilemmas.’ He goes on:

The challenge to them is to set out that vision in entirely positive terms which can be comprehended in common by those of all faiths and none. They must do it without constantly resorting to negatives, statements of what they are against or contrasts of the things their vision is free from.

Any offers?

theohobsonpicture-full3binit_Theo Hobson has an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. I have met Theo only once – doing a joint interview with the Today programme at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference in July 2008 – and I liked him. I have read some of his writing, but wondered at him being profiled as a ‘theologian’. He comments on religious (particularly Christian) culture, but the theological critique does not seem always to be consistent. Given his claim to liberalism, I am sure he won’t mind me questioning a series of statements he makes in today’s Face to Faith piece.

Right at the beginning, and without any supporting evidence or illustration, he makes this unequivocal statement: ‘…churches seem to gravitate to authoritarianism, and they seem unable to grasp that secular liberalism is a good thing.’ Does ‘authoritarianism’ mean ‘the wrongful imposition of authority/power in order to control’ – or does it really mean ‘churches believe things that are not always fluid and won’t change them to suit me’? Secondly, what is it about ‘secular liberalism’ (undefined) that is unarguably ‘good’ and that churches cannot grasp? Thirdly, does he not see the illiberal irony of categorising all churches as monolithic, centralised and monocultural? And we are still only on the third sentence of the first paragraph. So, let’s press on…

‘We dislike the fact that Christianity is assumed to take institutional form. If you are a Christian, the assumption is, then you will be in favour of policies that defend the interests of these institutions, the churches, which run Christian culture. This ties Christianity to illiberalism in a way we can’t accept.’ Theo, please explain the logic behind these assumptions. It seems to me it is you (not ‘the churches’ as institutions) who is setting up the churches in a way I don’t recognise as being universally true. Just take the Church of England (as just one of, and uniquely different from, thousands of other manifestations of Christian ‘institution’): aren’t the current debates in the Church happening precisely because your statement is false and your assumptions awry? If you were right, the ‘institutional church’ would have slapped down its internal ‘heretics’ and prevented other denominations or ‘churches’ from setting themselves up in the first place. (In South London new churches – mainly, but not exclusively, black majority or ethnically defined – are being established almost every week.)

And please explain how a ‘Christian church’ can define itself in a way it pleases, even if it departs from the nature of the one whose name it bears. The call for a ‘church made in my own image’ is like asking for Marxism without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the common ownership of the means of production or an uncritical acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic.

The then goes on to cite ‘faith schools’ to support his complaint. But he can only do so by caricaturing ‘faith schools’, ignoring the rationale behind them, avoiding any cognisance of how (for example) Church of England schools behave and actually understand their role. Has he ever been into one? (Come to Croydon and I’ll arrange meetings with headteachers…) Or is this just the simplistic reflex we have become used to in the schools debate where the basis of ‘church’ schools is either misunderstood or ignored because it is inconvenient?  ‘But some of us Christians are deeply uneasy about the way in which churches use education to bolster their power, and encourage phoney church attendance among pushy parents. This is horribly at odds with the sort of Christian culture we want to see.’ Not a shred of evidence: just propagation of a tired but unassailable myth.

‘The loudest voices, almost the only voices, seem to belong to atheists on one hand, and conservative church leaders on the other… People now face a starker choice of identity between “secular liberal” and “institutional Christian”. Really? So, why all the complaints from elsewhere that church spokespeople are too liberal or wishy-washy? It is clearly nonsense to say that only particular voices are heard in the public discourse – perhaps this is just the common complaint most bishops face: ‘If you didn’t write it in headlines in the newspaper I read, then you are not saying anything at all.’

Theo goes on to ‘demand’ (!) a new and alternative sort of ‘church’ capable of engaging with liberal culture. He maintains that the established (and other) churches cannot do this. Claiming (without evidence or support) that ‘all churches itch for social control’, he states that ‘a new sort of Christian culture must be attempted, away from the churches’ before admitting that he has no idea what this might look like. He also seems ignorant of the huge numbers of Christian communities now meeting outside of church buildings and opening up contexts in which Christians of all sorts of complexions engage openly with ‘liberal’ (and every other sort of) culture.

And so to Theo’s conclusion – a rallying cry to those who share his muddled ignorance and personal fed-up-ness.  ‘What do we want? We demand a new way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, one that feels authentic, contemporary. We hope that, by accepting the truth of secular freedom, Christianity can enter a new phase, in which communication with liberal people is possible, and new cultural forms emerge. Maybe, with such a new direction, this religion can recapture the imagination of the culture.’ I am speechless. Get out more and see what churches are already doing.

I hope that this article might lead to a greater debate – not about ‘institutional’ churches (what other sort can there be?), but about why the Theo Hobsons of this world are so illiberal and irrational in the assumptions they make and claims they state.

If I as a bishop made such claims – even in a newspaper article of limited length and space – without evidence or further reference – I would be castigated as arrogant, unthinking and arbitrary. So, what is it that allows others to write such unsubstantiated stuff without hearing that same charge?

Forgive me for being amused, but it does seem quite funny that people who get so worked up about God in general, religion in particular and Christianity in particular particularity can’t stop talking about it all. They have done a remarkable job in reviving and keeping alive the discourse about God when their deepest desire is to eradicate God and all talk of him.

wilsonLast week’s New Statesman focused on religion (prior to Easter) and brought a number of people into the conversation. The most interesting by far was the interview with AN Wilson who, a couple of decades after having declared himself an atheist, is now back in the theistic and Christian fold. He is not stupid, illiterate, ill-educated or morally weak and in need of some intellectual or emotional crutch with which to limp through life. He is honest and open and has clearly irritated those who can’t comprehend that anyone with half a brain could possibly be a Christian. Instead of arguing, they sneer.

AN Wilson has followed this up with a fuller explanation of his journey back to faith in an intriguing and sharp article in the Mail written last Saturday. In it he points to the embarrassment of being a known to be a Christian – on the grounds that it isn’t ‘sexy’ or cool. I know exactly what he means: try sitting on a train in a clerical collar and watch the eyes…

But Christians can take heart and be confident. Unlike some of the evangelists for atheism, people like AN Wilson are simply telling their story and not imposing it on anyone who doesn’t want to hear it. He does not come over as being evangelistic about his re-found faith, but simply open about it in all its simplicity and complexity.

Perhaps the New Atheists should just relax a bit more. In the meantime, we should thank them that their aggressive evangelism keeps the language of God alive in the street, in offices, in pubs and just about everywhere else. I think they call it the ‘law of unintended consequences’.

I have just been pointed towards the latest statement by the National Secular Society about what they call ‘de-baptism’. Oh dear. You would think that they would pay just a smidgeon more attention to accuracy on the grounds that it is always wise to (a) know your subject and (b) get your facts right. Otherwise you risk looking a bit stupid. It begins as follows:

‘Despite a letter from Lambeth Palace telling the NSS that it would not sanction any form of official ‘debaptism’, one diocese is bucking the trend. The Diocese of Croydon…’ It later goes on to state: ‘So now John Hunt is the first person in Britain to be officially debaptised by the Church of England. But the “in this particular case” rider in the Church message seems to suggest that he might also be the last.’

Firstly, there is no Diocese of Croydon. Croydon is an Episcopal Area in the Diocese of Southwark.

Secondly, John Hunt cannot be the last to be ‘officially’ debaptised because he isn’t the first either. ‘Debaptism’ is not possible. From the point of view of Christians, baptism is something that happened and there is no way of ‘un-doing’ it. From the point of view of atheists, nothing happened at baptism anyway and therefore there is nothing to ‘de-do’. Sticking John Hunt’s note in the register is not ‘de-anything’; it is simply a note in a register that has no effect whatsoever other than to make him feel better that he has been heard.

Is this really so hard to understand? We truly need to put the reason back into rationalism.

The media have been running a range of variations on a single theme during the last couple of weeks. It is time it was realised that it is a non-story aimed at getting lots of publicity for a marginalised minority. Some people want to be ‘de-baptised’ and the media are lapping it up. Well, by ‘lapping it up’, what I really mean is that they have re-hashed a story put out by the BBC for which I did a half-hour interview resulting in a seven-second broadcast and there is even a marked similarity in the wording in several of the printed or online versions I have read. In other words, a single non-story is turned into a story by one media agent milking another – and so it goes on. Exactly what Nick Davies is questioning in his Flat Earth News.

baby-cryingThe campaign, being promoted mischievously by the National Secular Society, is to put pressure on the Church of England to allow people to be ‘de-baptised’. You can read the details elsewhere, but there are several matters arising from this debate that need a more cogent airing. So, here goes.

1. If an atheist believes baptism is just a load of voodoo and that nothing happens, what is there to ‘de-do’ (if you see what I mean)?

2. One of the criticisms of the Church is that babies or children who are baptised without their consent are somehow being indoctrinated into something sinister and that this infringes their human rights. Apart from the obvious retort that we do lots of things to young children without their consent (like feeding them, dressing them, cutting their hair, making them go to school, telling them off, not letting them play on the motorway, etc), this betrays a pile of dodgy assumptions. For example, it assumes that life is neutral and children are born as blank sheets. Apparently, if you bring up a child in a family shaped by a ‘religious’ world view, you are damaging them psychologically; but if you bring them up in a ‘non-religious’ context, they will grow up free and able to make their own mind up about the meaning and purpose of their life.

What utter nonsense. The atheist assumes a worldview and brings up the child in a non-neutral context in which certain views of the world, meaning and morality are being represented – and into which the child is being indoctrinated. That is to say, the atheist’s world view is not neutral and, therefore, not inherently preferable to that of a theist. Both assume and construct world views and bring up their children within them; but neither is neutral.

So, the atheist does not simply protect the child from something ‘extra’ that is dangerous to an otherwise neutral way of seeing and being, but is shaping that child’s world view according to other assumptions about the way the world is and why it is that way. I fail to understand why people who claim to be ‘rationalists’ become so irrational that they cannot grasp this obvious fact.

3. I am hearing allegations that the EU is protecting the ‘evangelical noises getting louder and louder’ by its legislation and that this is a bad thing. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know (because I was marginally involved in it) that there was a long and protracted attempt by elements in the EU (France in particular) to remove from the putative European Constitution any reference to the Christian history of Europe. How stupidly irrational and illiberal is that?

martin-luther1As I have observed elsewhere, it is impossible to understand the history (and, therefore, the present – to say nothing of the future) of Europe without understanding its Christian history – for both good and ill. Germany – including Hitler, etc. – cannot be understood for one second without an appreciation of the Reformation. I could go on, but I begin to lose the will to type at this point…

So, we need to challenge the so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ – not on privileged religious grounds, but on grounds of intellectual and rational consistency. And theists need to be more confident in seeing off the arrogant assumptions of the campaigning atheists who betray a little more blind faith in their own assumptions than is healthy for their own internal consistency.

I have just recorded an interview with the BBC about elements of the National Secular Society‘s campaigns against religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Then I was sent a copy of the press notice issued by the NSS yesterday in response to the announcement made by Southampton University Hospitals Trust that people will be asked whether they have “any faith needs that can be supported during their stay”.

secularismThe NSS responded thus: “This sounds like the chaplains touting for business. It is a gross misuse of scarce National Health Service resources and an intrusion into the privacy of individuals who are coming to hospital for medical treatment… How on earth have we reached the stage that you can’t even go to hospital for treatment without having religion foisted on you like this?”

Oh dear. Here we go again. I would love to be able to have a rational discussion in rational language with rational people, but this sort of stuff should make any decent secularist despair.

1. The description about ‘chaplains touting for business’ is just cheap and silly as well as ignorant.

2. Who decides what counts as ‘gross misuse’ of resources: the majority of the country’s people who claim some sort of religious belief or the little huddle of the NSS who try to speak for everyone?

3. Since when has asking a question been tantamount to ‘intrusion into privacy’? No one is required to answer and the question itself does not suggest it must be answered affirmatively. It appears from this that the hospital trust is mature enought to allow adults the freedom and dignity to make their own mind up whereas the NSS thinks people are inherently stupid and vulnerable and need to be protected from a question. How liberal/rational is that?

4. Asking this question is, apparently, having ‘religion foisted on you’. Is not having the question asked tantamount to having secularist assumptions foisted on you? Do they really have such little regard for the integrity and intelligence of ordinary people?

5. There is an assumption that human beings are simply a body/mind duality – very platonic, but not how most people see themselves. Is it really the intention of the NSS to deny people the right to be treated as ‘whole’ beings – spirituality included – presumably on the grounds that the NSS knows better than the people concerned what is good for them? Isn’t that what we call ‘patronising’?

I draw attention to this simply because some of us are well up for a good rational debate about all sorts of things: the constitutional place of the C of E, the secular myth of neutrality, the role of bishops in the legislature, etc. But this will require a more rational language from the secularists of the NSS. I know they are a campaigning body, but issuing silly and patronising press notices does nothing to encourage a proper debate.

andrew-marrAndrew Marr, presenter of the BBC’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has raised some of these questions very well in relation to Darwin. His basic point is that some secularists are behaving very religiously/evangelistically in relation to their atheism – and shouldn’t they see what they look like? (See also the interview with Tony Blair on the same subject.)

robert-piggottThe BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent, Robert Piggott, has today begun a ‘Faith Diary‘ on the BBC website. He has made an excellent start and gone right to the heart of an issue that can’t be got away from: popular perceptions of the role of religion in UK society. Instead of listening to the secular elite who have a louder voice than they deserve (even based on a simplistic statistical analysis – for example, under 3000 members of the National Secular Society, but they get treated as being representative of most of the country), a poll was conducted among more ordinary people.

According to Robert Piggott’s report, ‘there’s been a rising chorus of alarm from church leaders at what they regard as the “aggressive secularism” marginalising Christianity, the religion whose precepts – such as “do as you would be done by”, and upholding the sanctity of human life – once underpinned British laws.’ This concern is echoed by members of other faith communities who are equally concerned about the ‘secular’ lack of understanding of two points:

1. Every human being has a world view. This world view shapes how we see the world and live in it. It accounts for why we think some things matter and how our morality is formed. It assumes an understanding of what history means and where death fits into life. It also directs what or whom we worship (that is, give ultimate worth/value to). The point is that every human being has a world view, but rarely argues for the assumptions that shape it. In the contemporary debate it often appears that the secular commentators or campaigners think that only religious people have a loaded set of private convictions about God, the world and everything, but that they, on the other hand, are neutral. The secular world view is assumed to be self-evidently true.

If you don’t believe me, look at some responses to the Children’s Society’s A Good Childhood inquiry. The evidence was examined, but the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence were inconvenient to the lifestyle and world view (particularly in relation to relationships, families and children) and, so, were rejected for reasons no less than ideological prejudice – a charge usually directed at religious people.

2. World views are not private. The notion, often articulated in the broad media, that there is a neutral centre ground which is occupied by rational secular humanists (the media, politics, economics, etc), is nonsense. This assumption sees religion as belonging to the realm of the private conviction, the secret hobby, that has no relation to nor place in the public discourse. Given that every world view is based on certain assumtpions and is not thoroughly argued for, why is one world view to be arrogantly privileged over against another?

This is where the ignorance kicks in. A religious world view is not something to be consigned to a bin called ‘private’. One problem here is that when we speak of ‘believing’ in western culture/language, we assume it to mean ‘giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions’. Yet this is not adequate. ‘Belief’, understood in Christian terms at least, means ‘committing your life – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see when you look through a lens behind the eyes that is shaped by a particular world view. That can never be private.

This means that, although it might pain many people to face it, religious world view have to be taken seriously and engaged with – not simply derided, ridiculed or avoided.

christianityRobert Piggott exposes the (for many) uncomfortable fact that British society has been shaped by Christian precepts that did not simply emerge from nowhere. Yes, Christian history also bears witness to misguided irrationality, horrow and injustice – as does the history of those places that tried to oust religion in general and Christianity in particular – and there is little to be gained by dismissing Christianity because Christians have too often screwed up. But it is equally stupid to try to pretend that Christian history didn’t happen, that 21st century Britain emerged from some cultural vacuum, that Europe has always been a secular environment, or that secular humanism can lay any more claim to self-evident truth than can any religion.

This debate needs to move on in the UK and needs to be treated more intelligently by both secularists and religious people. This will be helped by examples of comment such as that by Robert Piggott.

The debate about the Bible opened up by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has had some interesting responses – not least to my post yesterday (Bible and Motion). One of the amazing things, in my opinion, is the widespread ignorance about how texts work and how literature is to be understood. There are two elements to this in relation to the Bible:

1. The Bible and its stories provide the cultural backdrop to western society and our society cannot be understood any more without the Bible than it could be by ignoring the First World War. This is not an ideological claim and it is a view supported quite rightly by atheists such as Richard Dawkins. This should provide no problem for anyone with a shred of rationality about them. To deny it would be to regard as reasonable the suggestion that western cultural history can be understood without some nod towards the Romans, the Greeks or the Assyrians. In the same way that England cannot be understood without the Elizabethan Settlement or Germany without the Reformation, so Shakespeare cannot be understood without the Bible. This is not an ideological position – after all, I can acknowledge the role of Greek mythology in the formation of the western mind without having to believe that it isn’t a load of nonsense. Equally, I can learn to understand Nazism without having to agree with Mein Kampf.

2. However, the Bible is regarded as the source of truth claims by people of varying religious conviction. Those truth claims must be subject to public scrutiny and questioning. One element of such scrutiny will be its intellectual coherence – another will be the experience of those who claim its truth for themselves or the world. Within the community that regards the text as ‘true’ or ‘authoritative’ there will be endless debates about what ‘truth’ means and how the text itself conveys that truth. For example, the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘factuality’ will need to be explored: a parable can convey truth (about life, the universe and everything) without recording an event that actually happened.

To insist on the importance of the Bible’s role (1) is not to suggest that everybody should be subjected to blind acceptance of its truth claims (2). But here we hit on another problem. The ‘secularists’ (for want of a better category) seem to regard their worldview/understanding of what is ‘true’ about the world as somehow neutral, but see a religious worldview as ‘loaded’ (somewhere up the dangerous/loony scale). Yet, the secularist worlview is not always argued for, bears many assumptions which can neither be falsified nor verified, and arrogates to itself a position of unassailability in the public market place. It is simply assumed to be true for all people and suffers no deviation or qualification.

This is, I suggest, both irrational and absurd.

Andrew Motion’s critique applies to my first observation and it is to that that I applied myself in yesterday’s post. Maybe I should apply myself to the second observation in a future post. That would be the place to say something about how texts work, how they are understood variously in the course of time and how any text is a text in motion. Put briefly, the Bible is partly an account of a people’s growing realisation of who God is, how God is and how we should live together accordingly. Butchery might have seemed justifiable at one point in history, but not after some ‘motion’ a thousand years later after the cost of such butchery had been experienced.

Slavery was abolished in the teeth of Christian biblical opposition. But it was abolished because Christians such as Wilberforce read the Bible differently and compelled the readers of the text to read it differently. Which I realise is a bit embarrassing for those who would prefer it if Wilberforce had been an atheist.

At last – a shaft of light penetrates into the murkiness of much public commentary on Christianity and religious matters. Today’s Guardian newspapercontains two articles about the call by the former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, to teach our children the Bible. His reasoning? You can’t understand English (or global) cultural or historical heritage – particularly art, literature or theatre – unless you have a basic familiarity with the biblical text.

the-holy-bible1Andrew Motion is an atheist, so he is not banging a theistic drum here. Rather, as an intelligent man with his brain engaged, he is stating the blindingly obvious in the face of a culture that has largely lost its ability to be rational about anything to do with religion, Christianity or the Bible.

john-miltonHis point is simply that successive generations of students are ignorant of the stories that formed the worldview of a couple of thousand years of western people. So, you can’t understand them or their art if you don’t understand to what their art refers. Motion recalls teaching students of the great English poet John Milton (1608-1674) who had no idea there had been a Civil War in England and understood nothing of the references that are integral to Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained (for example). This isn’t about evangelism or indoctrinating children with religious fables; rather, it is about equipping children and young people with the basic tools they need to understand their historical and contemporary culture.

No surprise, then, that the ridiculous and irrational National Secular Society spokesman should respond with this enlightened nonsense: “It’s a bit excessive – children already get 45 minutes of religious education a week for 10 years. They also attend compulsory acts of worship which includes reading the Bible. Isn’t that enough?” So says Keith Porteous Wood, executive director and former general secretary of the National Secular Society. It is so silly (and a prime example of missing the point) that it isn’t worth spending any further time on it.

I think Andrew Motion has been able to say what many of us have been saying for years, but without the ‘credibility’ that comes from being an atheist. Motion asserts that study of the great stories (classical, biblical and other religious stories) would form part of a general studies programme – somthing that has long since dropped off the syllabus at many schools because of an obsession with targets, exam preparation and narrow specialising in limited fields.

shakespeare300He says: “I can imagine every teacher in the land saying, ‘not more to do’, because the pressure on the curriculum is so enormously heavy already” … I’m not suggesting this as a ‘bolt-on’, but part of a broader rethinking about what education is meant to be. What is probably required is a more radical conversation about how the curriculum is structured.”

The Guardian article also notes that “aside from the Cross Reference Project, which is supported by the Bible Society, and provides resources to help students to understand how literature has been shaped by the Bible, there is little out there” to help teachers who have also been brought up without the knowledge they need to teach this stuff.