In a recent piece for the Mail on Sunday Peter Hitchens expressed dismay at a report advocating for a more secular and multicultural approach to education. The report also recognises that the place of the Church of England in public life no longer represents the broader make-up of British society or faith. Peter went so far as to imply that the report was the work of people who wished to “wreck the country”.
I have mixed feelings about Peter Hitchens. On one hand I find myself admiring his clear intelligence and articulacy, and I share his frustrations that serious argument on issues of importance is so hard to find. Even though I don’t share his political perspective I find myself empathising with his notions of what makes fair debate, and nearly all of his television appearances impress me despite the fact that I strongly disagree with him on almost every matter. On issues where we do agree (feelings of loss regarding public property, suspicion of those calling for interventionist military action) I’m always pleasantly surprised to hear his point of view.
However, I do find a lot of his writing for the Mail on Sunday to be as loaded with glib sophistry as the arguments of those he decries when on the telly. For example at the centre of his recent piece is the following piece of cant:
“But the idea that we should carry on adapting Britain and England to ideas and religions from elsewhere seems to me to be a mistake. All we have and are is based on the Christian faith, which has shaped law, government, morals, music, landscape and education here for a thousand years. Abandon it, and what holds up the trust which keeps us from chaos?”
The short answer is that we have a fundamental distrust of chaos, and that it alone bears up the trust that keeps us from chaos.
A longer answer disputes pretty much everything claimed here. Firstly there is the argument, which I am sure Peter is well aware of, that Christianity is itself a multicultural construction. It took marketable aspects of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, an assembly of different pagan beliefs, maybe even Buddhism, and applied them to the Roman world. Prior to the Council of Nicea there was little agreement as to fundamental tenants of the religion, even the divinity of Christ was a matter of hot dispute. This is adaption to ideas from elsewhere.
Protestantism also bears the marks of nascent multiculturalism. The story of Christianity in the UK and Ireland is dominated by the upshots of heresy against prevailing Christian power structures of the renaissance. It is this rebellion which Peter credits as his preferred version of the faith, as it was responsible for the creation of his beloved C of E. This is adaption to ideas from elsewhere.
Regarding law, morals, government and education in the UK, I would say that when it comes to the best parts of such things enlightenment values predominate over Christian ones. Churches stood at the forefront of those responsible for the barbarisms of pre-enlightenment Europe. Some apologists try to counter this argument by claiming that the enlightenment was an exclusively Christian phenomenon, but just because it came into being within Christian territory it does not follow that the religion can claim credit for it. Established churches were dragged kicking and screaming to the enlightenment, having in previous centuries tortured and executed many of the people who would have speeded its birth had they been allowed to speak freely.
Just as Christianity was dragged into accepting a need for consistency in Nicea, and then dragged out of that same need through the rise of Protestantism, its acceptance of enlightenment values was largely forced on it by outside circumstance. It was not engendered by those championing the faith to the exclusion of other ideas.
The landscape is somehow Christian, and it helps to keep us from chaos? I’m afraid I just don’t follow.
Yes the York Minster is an impressive building, but so are Stonehenge and the Gherkin skyscraper. As to what makes a pretty church superior to a pretty pagoda is down to matters of subjective taste. When it comes to crediting religion for works of art the pretty ones are celebrated whilst the ugly ones are wilfully ignored. I, for example, find the thin white steeple of Belfast Cathedral a positive eyesore, so if Christianity gets the credit for the York Minster does it owe a corresponding aesthetic debt for that?
What I find most impressive about the landscape of the British Isles is its natural beauty, which Christianity neither informs nor diminishes.
Music? I really don’t follow. If there’s one area that multiculturalism can confidently claim to have had beneficial influence on it’s the arts. Peter can enjoy plainsong if he likes, but I prefer gospel, and thanks to multiculturalism I have the choice of either or both.
Appreciation of music and landscape is subjective and need have nothing to do with religion. Nor does such appreciation keep us from chaos. What keeps us from chaos is an overweening natural desire not to be subjected to chaos, and it is this desire that has informed our evolving systems of law, government, morals and education.
Rather than seeing multiculturalism as adaption to ideas I see it as a reception of ideas. What I think makes life in the UK better than life in North Korea is in large part down to the ability to appraise foreign notions on their merits, rather than dogmatically refusing to acknowledge them. Does this mean we have to try everything out? No. Do I like hearing from people who want me to try broad applications of Sharia Law? No, but those downsides of multiculturalism strike me as less of an imposition than the downsides of monoculturalism. I no more want to try out broad applications of Sharia Law than I want to try out sticking my hand in a vat of strong acid but I’m happy to have the opportunity to learn about the idea of it and therefore stand a chance of judging from an informed position.
Peter goes on to say:
“I accept that Christianity is dying fast in this country. I know that many schools teach religion badly, if at all, and that ignorance is everywhere. But there is more than one response to this. You could say, as this ‘report’ does, that we should accept that this isn’t a Christian country any more, and adapt it to become a sort of religious salad of all faiths and none.”
“You could give up trying to teach Christianity as a living faith, and instead get children to study it as a quaint, eccentric curiosity. Or – and the weeks around Christmas are a good time to say this – we could say that we still have a chance to rebuild and restore what has been lost.”
I would advocate trying to be honest, by saying that Christianity is very much a living faith, but that it no longer commands the respect it once did, people no longer enthuse about it or trust its advocates in the way they once did. Therefore secular alternatives are not only desirable but needful in that vacuum.
The report (which is not a ‘report’ by the way, it’s just a report) argues along these lines. Peter himself admits Christianity is dying fast, and he provides nothing of substance to explain why it requires saving. Given this fact the continuing privilege Christianity is shown in politics and education becomes increasingly unjustified.
So the salad option does strike me as the best, because it is the one in line with reality. Can reality be a tough thing to face? Yes, though the reasons Peter provides for alarm are balderdash.