Christianity has figured prominently in the news this week. First, David Cameron writes an article for the Church Times in which he explains that “Christians should become more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” Then a group of campaigning atheists protest against Cameron’s article in a very British way, by writing a letter to the Telegraph to register their disapproval. Then Charles Moore reflects on both these positions in a long article in Tuesday’s Telegraph when he addresses the underlying issues: yes, our patrimony is Christian and yes, the atheists are correct when they say that “we are a largely non-religious society”.
So has this storm in a vicarage teacup now died down? Not exactly. I have been wondering why the 55 signatories to the Telegraph letter of protest thought it necessary to say anything at all. After all, as Ed West has written in his own blog on this subject, “The Prime Minister had made what struck me as some fairly innocuous references to his religion. Most people, I imagine, thought little of this…” But atheists, being a solemn and humourless lot in my experience, can’t let it go; they are permanently affronted that many other seemingly normal citizens of this country are determined to subscribe to mumbo-jumbo and – to add insult to injury – let others know about it.
Charles Moore’s final paragraph deserves quoting: “Until quite recently, Christians in Britain could assume the goodwill, if not the active belief, of the powerful in society. That assumption can no longer be made. Our beliefs are under attack from influential and militant atheists on the one hand and Muslim extremists on the other. To defend them, we have to work out much more carefully what they actually are.”
So what do we Christians believe? Quite stupendous things, actually, which are meant to transform our lives. They are all in the Creed that we recite at Mass each Sunday: that God made us; that he came down to earth at a specific time and place, then died on the Cross to redeem us from our sins; that he rose from the dead and sent his Holy Spirit to guard and guide the Church he founded, and so on. I suspect for Cameron Christianity is much more low-key: a religion of kindness, tolerance and good works. But these are not characteristics specific to Christianity at all; they are common to all decent people of any faith and no faith.
What the 55 signatories know in their bones is that Christians are the enemy; that’s why they’re “militant”, as Moore describes them. After all, because of their creedal beliefs it means that Christians hold that life is sacred and not to be arbitrarily ended, whether in the womb or when you are old or ill; they believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman; that sex outside marriage is wrong – all beliefs that run completely counter to our modern society (and counter to Cameron’s brand of Christianity). They loathe the thought that we actually have the cheek to tell them we believe they are wrong; that they are sinners in need of redemption; that love doesn’t mean “never having to say you’re sorry” but that it is about self-sacrifice, repentance and humility; that it isn’t true that you can behave as you like “as long as it doesn’t harm others”.
And what about the Muslim extremists that Moore refers to? Of course there are complex questions surrounding that small segment of our population – but I feel certain that some of their uncompromising fanaticism stems from their alarm at the obvious decadence of western society they see all around them: its casually blasphemous or indifferent attitude towards God; its sexual shamelessness; its moral relativism.
In the face of all this should we Christians retreat to the catacombs again and let society go to hell? That is not the answer. We have to know what we believe and be able to defend our beliefs in the arena when challenged by militant atheists. It’s no use pining for Christian traditions that have now vanished. With patience, love and truth we must confidently explain why we believe as we do and why it is reasonable. If we do this we might earn the respect, rather than suffer the contempt and alienation, of our Muslim neighbours. It is Christians, after all, who should be able to understand where Muslims are coming from. Atheists, including the eminent 55 signatories to the Telegraph letter, cannot dialogue with Islam, having cut themselves off from the religious dimension to life. That is their loss.
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