January 18, 2013 § 36 Comments
The European Court of Human Rights ruling this week on four cases of conflict over religious rights, and the continuing controversy in Britain, France and elsewhere on proposals to legalize gay marriage, shows the ongoing battle over how we should define religious freedom. I wrote a long post on this question last year, trying to establish some fundamental ground rules from first principles. Here I want to address one issue that has become prominent in recent weeks: the claim by a growing number of believers, especially Catholics, that the legalization of gay marriage amounts in itself to an attack on religious freedom, even to the persecution of Christians. More than 1000 Catholics priests, bishops and abbots – almost a quarter of Catholic clerics in England and Wales – signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph suggesting that while ‘After centuries of persecution Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country’, legalizing same sex unions would return Britain to the days of persecution, ‘severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship’. The journalist Cristina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald, agreed that ‘David Cameron’s persecution of Catholics makes him Henry VIII, mark II’. ‘Once gay marriage is a law’, she claimed, ‘Catholics will be barred from many professions — just as they were from the Reformation until the 19th Century’. There are, she adds, ‘many Christians willing to play Thomas More to David Cameron’s Henry VIII’.
Such claims, it seems to me, not only fundamentally misunderstand religious freedom, but, in their wild hysteria, serve also to undermine those very freedoms. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 20, 2011 § 43 Comments
I wrote some notes a few months back on Pandaemonium on Rethinking the idea of ‘Christian Europe‘. I reworked that post into an essay, which has now been published in the latest issue of New Humanist. And I’m posting it here, too.
In the warped mind of Anders Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utøya earlier this year were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one, to defend what Breivik called Europe’s ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’. Few but the most psychopathic can have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet the idea that Christianity provides the foundations of Western civilization, and of its political ideals and ethical values, and that Christian Europe is under threat, from Islam on the one side and ‘cultural Marxists’ on the other, finds a widespread hearing. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and to the end of modern, liberal democracy.
The claims about the ‘Muslim takeover’ of Europe, while widely held, have also been robustly challenged. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident – and not just by believers. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of ‘Eurabia’, described herself as a ‘Christian atheist’, insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself ‘an incurable atheist’ and yet is alarmed by the decline of Christianity which undermines ‘any religious resistance’ to radical Islam. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that ‘Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
October 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 10, which looks at the Renaissance and the Reformation and at the impact of both on moral philosophy. This excerpt is about Martin Luther’s theology and about the ambiguities of the Reformation, an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity that was nevertheless also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity.
‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. Martin Luther’s famous response to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, defending his right to challenge the authority of Pope on the basis of his personal convictions sounds to a modern reader as a ringing endorsement of personal conscience, individual freedom and free will. Whether Luther actually spoke those words remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it was never his intention to defend freedom of will. Luther dismissed as blasphemy the very concept. ‘Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin’, as he put in his Heidelberg Disputation, a famous debate within the Augustinian Order. Indeed he barely believed in any kind of freedom. When Luther insisted that ‘I can do no other’, he was defending not his freedom of will but his lack of freedom to believe and to act. He could do no other because he was compelled to do as he had.
September 18, 2011 Comments Off
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 9, a chapter that explores medieval Christian thought, and in particular the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of Christian theologians. Western Christendom had recently rediscovered Aristotle, largely through translations from the Muslim world. Aquinas found in Aristotle both a reason for, and a means to, transform the traditional relationship between reason and faith in Christian theology.
For Augustine and early Christian theologians, reason had been subservient to faith. The yen for knowledge had led to Original Sin and Original Sin had corroded human intellect and will. Aquinas, echoing the arguments of the Muslim Rationalists, reversed the relationship between reason and faith. Reason was not a corrupting expression of human hubris, too great a reliance on which denied humans access to the divine, but a divine gift to enable humanity to understand God, and bring them to Him. Aquinas was, of course, a devout and obedient Christian and for all his defence of reason, divine revelation remains the foundation of his moral framework. Yet Aquinas does something novel with the Christian moral framework. He grasps the tension at the heart of Christian belief between human agency and the consequences of the Fall and, unlike Augustine, tries to rethink that tension to minimise human degradation and maximise the possibilities of reason.
This extract is from the final section of Chapter 9, which explores the importance of Dante, and in particular of The Divine Comedy, in giving poetic life to Aquinas’ moral vision and in sketching out the outlines of the moral landscape that was to come.
August 19, 2011 § 30 Comments
UPDATE: this post won the 2011 3QD Politics and Social Sciences Prize.
In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:
Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian
Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 8, 2011 § 6 Comments
Continuing the series of monthly extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, here is the fourth excerpt (naturally from Chapter 4). The first three chapters in the book deal with Greek and Hellenistic thought. Chapter 4 begins the discussion of the monotheistic religions, moving from the origins of Judaism to early Christianity (the exploration of Islam comes later). This extract is taken from the section on Augustine, the most important of early Christian theologians, indeed with Aquinas the most important thinker in the history of the faith, and one whose views on human nature, free will and, in particular, Original Sin, has been deeply influential.
AUGUSTINE WAS BORN IN 354 IN THE NORTH AFRICAN TOWN OF THAGASTE, IN what is now Tunisia. The city lay inside the Roman Empire and its citizens were deeply Latinized. Augustine’s father Particius was a pagan, his mother Monnica a pious Christian with whom he had intense and often conflictual relationship that helped shape the way he thought about God. Pursuing a promising intellectual career, Augustine became a teacher of rhetoric, first in Carthage, and then in Rome, before taking up a post as an imperial orator in Milan. But increasingly he felt himself tormented by emotional doubt, a torment driven by a desire to make sense of good and evil, and leading to an ever-more desperate search for a safe spiritual harbour. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 4, 2011 § 41 Comments
I gave an unusual lecture this week. I was invited to Bristol University’s Trinity College, to talk to theology students about ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was an enjoyable event, and I relished debating with an audience that was courteous, articulate and well-informed (and all of them endearingly concerned at my loneliness in being the only atheist in the room). And, perhaps, I planted a few seeds of doubt in their minds. What was clear, however, was that the difference between between us rested less at the level of philosophical debate than of psychological temper. « Read the rest of this entry »