Old Gods in the New Statesman

A copy of the New Statesman – a British, centre-left weekly political magazine – drops through my letterbox every Thursday (just pipping The Spectator, which the postman brings on a Friday for my right-wing balance).

When I began subscribing to the NS, I didn’t expect to find much orthodox Christianity gracing its pages (the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes regularly for them, but I’ll let you decide whether or not you think that scores points for Christian orthodoxy). I didn’t really expect to find matters of faith featured much at all.

Yet I find God bothering its pages more and more. The divine keeps trickling in, like water through the cracks of the past year’s social and political confusion. Not in full-throated praise of Reformed, evangelical Christianity obviously. But in ways which I don’t think one would have seen in a popular left-wing magazine 10-15 years ago.

For example, Louise Perry (who, as an aside, is doing some of the best lowkey criticism of the trans agenda from a feminist perspective), was this week writing about England’s veneration of its national football team. She refers to the Tanna people of the South Pacific, who have long upheld a (bizarre, to us) divine veneration of the late Prince Philip:

…it occurred to me that our own attitude is not so very different from that of the people of Tanna. We may not hold supernatural beliefs about our revered figures, but we do treat them in a manner that certainly ­appears religious, as it involves taboos, rituals, myths and collective celebration or mourning.

That’s not a bad thing – in fact, I think it may be essential to a functioning society. There was a lot of grumbling from republicans about the media pageantry surrounding Prince Philip’s death, so much so that the BBC had to set up a separate web page for people to direct their complaints about the broadcaster’s coverage. But although I have no particular love for the royals on a personal level, I don’t share this distaste for their institution because I think it serves a valuable purpose.

“Essential to a functioning society” – is that how the New Atheists would have described taboo, ritual, and myth back in 2006? Richard Dawkins himself once tore into the idea of religion’s social benefits in the pages of the New Statesman itself, whilst lambasting former Prime Minister David Cameron over faith schools. Back then, we’d come to the end of faith, and God was a delusion who was not great, and religion poisoned everything. The former Labour party spin-doctor Alastair Campbell is famed for (supposedly) saying “we don’t do God”, back in the Blair era, which ran alongside the New Atheism in its pomp.

Perry wasn’t talking about religion per se, but football (or soccer, if you must). Yet when she reaches for the words to describe the objects and figures which create our shared national life, she can’t help but speak religiously.

Let’s take another article in the same issue. Megan Nolan writes about her inner conflict as an Irish cradle Catholic and former New Atheist when faced faced with the horrors of the Catholic church’s role in the graves of native children at Canadian residential schools:

I am Catholic, both technically and in some residual, sore, longing part of myself, but I struggle to understand how Catholics who maintain an active relationship with the Church can stand to do so in these circumstances…

…I think I hesitate to voice my disgust and bewilderment at the Catholic Church because I don’t want the antipathy to be construed as being directed towards Catholic people. I, like many of my generation, am also retrospectively embarrassed about an overeager Richard Dawkins phase in my teens, in which I disdained all things religious in an unbearably jejune way. I’m not like that now.

I don’t wonder at how or why people are religious or can live with uncertainty and inconsistency. I don’t even call myself an atheist these days. But I think that shift and a desire to be tolerant of others’ choices and faiths have perhaps led to a kind of overcorrection of my adolescent dogmatism, where I have nodded along too easily as people tell me it’s possible to be a leftist and a feminist and a practising Catholic all at once.

The impossibility of endorsing, even tacitly, an institution like the Catholic Church as it currently exists rears its head occasionally, as it has with the discovery of the bodies of indigenous children, left in lonely, unmarked graves. Likewise, you can consider yourself Catholic and in favour of legalised abortion, but you live with the knowledge that your subjective position is at odds with what the Church says about who you are. This contradiction may be uncomfortable to discuss, but I don’t think it can or should be ignored. 

Nolan zigzags all over the place here: the New Atheist brat grew into an over-tolerant adult, who’s now struggling to pull these different parts of herself together. She senses something’s gotta give, and yet the longing ache of religion won’t budge.

I don’t know if (or how) Nolan will resolve those tensions; but what’s worth our attention is the fact that we have here another regular writer in a progressive, left-leaning weekly magazine who has found that the zeitgeist of the Blairite New Atheist era ran out of steam somewhere in her early adulthood. Sam Harris’ supposed “end of faith” was, in fact, no ending at all.

These are just a couple of articles I’ve picked out, nestled together in one magazine this week. But I see them more and more, and I think they play into a wider shift in the English-speaking West. More and more people have become jaded on the project the New Atheists were attempting.

Atheism is still growing of course – from 2% of the US population in 2009 to 4% in 2019, according to Pew. In the UK in 2018, a staggering 1 in 4 people would say they don’t believe in God, up from 1 in 10 in 1998. Yet the picture’s far from simple, as endless discussion in recent years about “The Nones” (those Millennials and Gen Z-ers who identify neither as atheists or agnostic, nor as religious) has made clear.

There is a growing acknowledgement of the fact that human life – both individually and corporately- simply doesn’t work in the purely empirical, rational way that the New Atheists thought it should. Humans are religious creatures, and cannot escape taboo, ritual, and myth. We will always rally around symbols. We’ve seen this in ugly extremes on both the political Left and Right in the past few years in the post-truth era of Fake News. But the human religious impulse isn’t so much post-truth as pre-truth; not irrational but pre-rational.

Now, why am I talking about this on a blog which is meant to focus on the benefits of theological retrieval in church life and ministry?

First, its relevance to retrieval: this growing acknowledgement that people and society are, at a basic level, inescapably religious is in itself a kind of retrieval being practiced by our wider culture. Since WW2, Western societies have (to put it in broad, broad brushstrokes) tried to run themselves along the principles of liberalism – liberal meaning “to do with freedom”. Supposedly, everyone is free to believe what they wish, and we order our collective life based on neutral principles and values which we can all (supposedly) agree on. The New Atheism can probably be seen as an inevitable product of liberalism – after all, what’s more neutral than science?

But, as we can see, people are increasingly disillusioned with the post-WW2 liberal project, because it’s based on a flawed understanding of how people and communities actually work. They don’t work purely according to supposedly neutral, universal principles. No, they work with taboo, ritual, and myth. And, if we’re Christians, that is the kind of the world that our theological forefathers swam in. Whether it was Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Thomas Cranmer in Reformation Europe, Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, Augustine in Late Antiquity, or the Church Fathers in the heyday of the Roman Empire, most Christian theology was done in a world where anything like religiously neutral liberalism was unimaginable. We should be aware of how we’ve taken on-board liberalism’s assumptions about how people and societies work, and consider whether we’d be in better company if we shared the assumptions of past Christian thinkers and pastors.

This takes us to the relevance of all this to ministry: we should be attentive as we preach, teach, and evangelise to the fact that we and our congregations are not necessarily dealing with the atheism of 10-15 years ago any more.

Now, this is obviously very contextual. If your congregation are relatively affluent Boomers/Gen Xers, then their non-Christian peers may well still be very sold on the New Atheism, and be the kind who are lamenting the demise of liberalism. If that’s the case, then continue helping your flock to “know how to answer each person” (Col. 4:6) as appropriate. But that demographic won’t stay that way, and people need to be prepared for that. Indeed, even Boomers/Gen X-ers have begun ditching the liberal project and embraced deep, pre-rational ways of looking at the world – maybe by developing a resurgent love of their country and its symbols, or by throwing themselves fully behind the crusades for social justice which seem to animate their kids and grandkids so much. And many of us are already ministering among those kids and grandkids.

We need to equip people for living in a world in which the New Atheists are not the “biggest threat” to Christianity. They’re not. Rather, it’s a society whose pre-rational taboos, rituals, and myths revolve around realising sexual self-expression at any cost. To the liberal, irreligious New Atheists, Christians were just idiots. Now we are heretics.

Yet we should also be trying to equip people to evangelise in this climate. If more people accept that taboo, ritual, and myth are essential for the functioning of a healthy society, then we are much closer to where the Apostle Paul found himself in Acts 17 than we were in 2006, because people are willing to admit they are “in every way… very religious” (Acts 17:22) – or at least that they have commitments and beliefs than run deeper than empirical evidence allows.

In the era of the New Atheists, we poured our efforts into evangelism via facts. And of course, this is always necessary, because the Gospel rests on the fact of the resurrection. Yet now, in an age where people are returning to the old gods, we need to practice evangelism by myth. Of course, as C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact”.


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