Christopher Hitchens has died after an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer. He was undoubtedly one of the best polemicists of our time and he will be missed. However, he of all people wouldn’t let mourning and sentiment get in the way of exposing hypocrisy where it is found; which leads me, regrettably, to the topic of this post.
In a speech to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (itself a reprint to reaffirm an episcopal structure and with it the divine right of Kings: manipulated in translation for political purposes) in Oxford, Prime Minister David Cameron boldly claimed that, “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.” On a strictly semantic basis, Cameron is right. The majority of the population are Christians, and Anglicanism is tantamount to a state religion in the United Kingdom. Thankfully we’ve had politicians that aren’t as dogmatic as in the US that have until now held a position of not “doing God”. For the most part we’ve upheld an implicit policy of keeping church and state separate, whereas in the US they’re doing a piss-poor job of upholding their explicit policy to this effect. Case in point, future ‘Political dipshits say the dumbest things‘ star and potential Presidential nominee Rick Perry…
Now, in his defence he was quick to clarify that he wasn’t trying to exclude or “do down” other faiths (or none), but really there’s very little way that boldly declaring one of the most diverse nations on the planet to be expressly Christian can be taken otherwise. It is distinctly divisive phraseology which a politician, were that not his meaning, would’ve known better to use. But I am now simply trying to second-guess Cameron’s meaning and ultimately irrelevant in the face of his other comments.
He continued to wax idiotic about how Britain should adopt ‘Christian morality’. I’m not going to be a baseless sensationalist and assert that this means Cameron wants to put those who work on the Sabbath to death (Exodus 35:2-15), nor that he wants women who are not virgins on their wedding night to be stoned by all the men of the city (Deuteronomy 22:13-22). However, for modern issues, putting Christian morality above all others is a dangerous tactic that retards social progress in favour of holding to dogma and tradition.
Surely if Cameron espouses Christian morality as our guide, then when the issue of gay rights is discussed, the Christian right that wants to deprive homosexuals the right to get married, evidently have the support of the Prime Minister and of scripture. What’s more, the source of this Christian morality that Cameron speaks so highly of says in no plainer terms that gay people should be put to death. The fact that we know that this is not a rule that Cameron wants to push just confuses the point further. Why is he promoting “Christian morality” if he will neglect to follow it’s most rudimentary tenants? At it’s core, “Christian morality” is merely human morality (evolved from thousands of years of living in tribes and groups upon whom your individual survival depends) with a few bizarre and grizzly additions that even the most devout Christian fails to observe; be it for social convenience, personal well-being or abhorrence to such acts. Cameron is ignoring all the things that make this morality uniquely Christian but still keeping the title.
What’s more, I for one balk at the idea of a legal system or social system or morality that is based on dogma. As social attitudes, as technology, as times change, our moral standards and our ideals will change. Within my father’s lifetime being homosexual was not only socially reprehensible but also illegal. Today it is, arguably, neither; social attitudes have mostly changed, no longer are gay couples vilified as promiscuous and immoral. It would be a very sorry state of affairs if in spite of this progress we were bound to an immovable, dogmatic legal system that lead to the arrest and execution of gay people. Cameron’s “Christian morality” is based on scripture, it is unchanging and dogmatic: it is, after all, the word of a perfect and infallible God. In my opinion, morality and the law should be based on rational discourse, open discussion, the cases made and a logical conclusion reached; can anyone seriously say they disagree?
Ultimately, Cameron’s point is perfectly benign. He wishes to promote a sense of shared humanity, kinship and co-operation. He wants us to do away with selfishness and consumerism of modern culture and adopt a sense of generosity, caring and all that lovely stuff. But he is foolish to think that this lies in one particular sect or tribe or cult. These qualities are part of human decency, and can be obtained through secular means without any need for dogma or scripture or some supernatural Father Christmas rewarding us for being good. But I rather fear that Cameron attributing the “best” morality to one cult will have a counterproductive effect, rather than promoting a sense of shared humanity he’s done little more than amplify the “us and them” mentality that the devoutly religious carry.
Happy Christmas, from an atheist.
P.S. To preempt the obvious question, yes I still call it Christmas. I don’t believe in Odin either but that won’t stop me from having a Wednesday; it’s cultural and convenient to call it Christmas. If we’re being particularly pedantic we should all refer to it as the Pagan Winter Solstice but that’s too much effort to explain.