COMMENT: An English atheist spells out why he is glad to live in a Christian country. It's time that Christians felt the same way! E. Fox
By Simon Heffer
A measure of the sort of country we now live in - or fear we live in -
was to be found on the front of Monday's Daily Telegraph. "Stand up for
Christmas, archbishops tell their flocks", our headline read.
It referred to a co-ordinated (and many would think somewhat belated)
rearguard action against the forces of political correctness by the
Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and his predecessor, Lord
Both referred to the pressure now placed on us to ease off on
references to Christmas, Christ and Christianity, for fear of causing
offence to those who do not follow that particular faith. They also
indicated the help they feel is being given to the process of making
Christmas into a secular winter holiday by the forces of consumerism.
One or two of us took a deep breath at this, for it was a rare instance
in our lifetimes of the Church of England actually standing up for
something, and actually being right. It was also shocking, however,
that in a country with an established Christian church, and whose
Muslim population (for example) is only around three per cent, such an
exhortation should be felt necessary.
Perhaps I am one of those whose feelings the thought fascists hope to
spare by not mentioning the C word. In a hideous act of precocity, I
saw as a child that, having tried as hard as I could, I could not
believe in God. I greatly regret this, but, despite extensive
reflection, I can see no reason after all these years to revise my
I accept the existence of Jesus Christ as a historical figure, but the
Christian miracles are beyond me. I wonder, too, what the narrative
tradition of history has meant to the evolution of the Gospels, and
rather suspect that what we have read since the King James Bible is
rather a long way from where events actually started.
So, in common with many who have suffered from the secularisation of
the European mind since the mid-19th century, I must make my way down
the Cresta Run to the grave without the considerable comfort of
religion. However, as I do so, I rejoice wholeheartedly as an atheist
that I live in a Christian culture, and I know that, in that undeniably
hypocritical act, I am not alone.
Indeed, it is not just those who, like me, were born into Christian
families who feel this way: so do many Muslims and Jews, and it is one
of the reasons that they are so happy to live in our country and be
surrounded by that culture.
It is bewildering, therefore, that there should apparently be people
here who take such offence at Christmas, and against whom a brace of
archbishops feel the need to take up their croziers. I suspect they are
very few in number and exert an influence far in excess of their real
strength. Like all extremists and bullies, they deserve no tolerance at
They might merit some of our pity: if they shut themselves off from the
Christian culture, whether from the beauty of the liturgy, the serenity
of church music, or from admiring the reticulated tracery of an east
window, then their lives can only be deeply impoverished. They must
also conduct a pretence that some of our most fundamental institutions
are expressly Christian: notably our monarchy, and the Established
Church of which our monarch is Supreme Governor. Parliament still
begins each day's deliberations with prayers.
Our oldest schools and universities have intrinsic links with the
Anglican Church. Our very system of justice is implicitly Christian.
Our history is Christian since the dawn of the seventh century. More to
the point, it is by the will of the majority, in our democracy, that
all this remains so.
Those who dislike this have, of course, every right to militate against
it. They have, however, no right to impose their minority view on
anyone else. One of the most admirable qualities of Islam is that, in
Islamic states, it makes no apology for itself, but has all the
self-confidence that makes old cultures so attractive and potent. Nor
should Christianity in Christian states such as ours have to go on the
defensive, or seek accommodations with modern fashions, alien customs,
bigotry and ignorance.
Most Muslims I know enjoy our Christmas just as much as atheists such
as I do, and they understand, as intelligent people, the place of the
festival in our history, our culture and our way of life. No: the
offence they are alleged to take about it is, instead, taken on their
behalf by politically motivated wreckers, who do so without actually
asking Muslims, or Jews, or atheists, whether they mind this sort of
prejudice being promulgated in their names. And, sadly, they seem to be
encouraged in this offensive behaviour by the cowardice of politicians.
It is less appreciated than it might be that the Archbishop of
Canterbury, as the leading prelate of the Established Church, is as
much a political figure as an ecclesiastical one. We have an
established church presumably because our rulers (on whom the very idea
of establishment depends) feel it remains right that Protestantism
should be supported by the state, as the mainstream religion of the
English nation and its people. This does not, of course, exclude other
religions from being practised freely in England: it just means that
there is a pecking order.
Unlike many such pecking orders, this does not reflect the imposition
of a tendentious point of view: it reflects popular belief, both
religious and secular, and a sense of how things actually are and not
what a politically motivated minority would like them to be.
The modern Left exercises a militant anti-Christianity not so much
because of a cultural cringe in the face of immigrant minorities, but
because of its general wish to dismantle history. Once you have erased
Christianity, you have erased (or at least made appear irrelevant) much
of the past 1,400 years. "Modernisation" in all its political forms is
about the tabula Rasa, and there are few ways of creating one of those
so effective as the destruction of the traditional faith.
The two archbishops were, it must be pointed out, only following the
example of the Supreme Governor herself, who made what once would have
been an entirely unshocking defence of Christianity at the General
Synod a few weeks ago.
The Queen attracted great attention when she did this precisely because
it is so unusual for leaders of our society to promote Christianity and
the Christian way of life. We know the Queen's sincerity on this
subject, expressed since before her coronation, and we know, too, how a
vast but largely silent majority of her people will have agreed with
her and, now, with her two prelates.
Our main politicians, though, prefer to remain silent. No one is
actually expecting either Tony Blair, or David Cameron, or (if his
party would let him) Charles Kennedy to issue a theological
pronouncement even at this season, or to parade his faith (if he has
one) in what could only be construed as a vulgar and opportunist
But it would be refreshing for one of them to speak out and assault
council officials who ban Christmas decorations in their offices, or
teachers who refuse to tell the story of Christmas, or local
authorities that issue diktats about the importance of secularising
what we used to call "Christmas lights" in shopping centres. The
demented fear of causing offence, and of not, for a moment, being all
things to all men (and, in these inclusive times, women) continues,
however, to prevail.
As so often now, a lead is being taken by the people. Last summer, a
small, unrepresentative group of militant Islamists sought to attack
our country not least because they despised its Christian culture. At
this season, we should think especially of their victims, who died not
least because they lived in a country whose Christian ethic of
tolerance meant it was slow to grasp the threat against itself from
All of us, whatever our faith or lack of it, should see in Christmas a
reaffirmation of a way of life that a few others wish to destroy, and
the wonder of our benign sense of atavism. Atheist, Muslim and Jew can
be part of this civilised, free-thinking resistance movement. And
perhaps, if enough of us express this feeling now, our political
leaders will feel it safe to jump aboard the bandwagon, with their
usual lack of shame, in time for next Christmas.
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