Geoffrey Sampson


Why I am a Christian

England is a Christian country. The King is both Head of State and Head of the Church of England; seats in one of the Houses of Parliament are reserved for bishops. Until quite recently the great majority of people in positions of influence in England were baptized and confirmed members of the national church. Regular churchgoing has become less widespread than it was, but when I wrote the original version of this page almost three-quarters of the British population still identified themselves in the census as Christian (though fewer, I believe, in the most recent census). Even those who are not themselves believers have normally been respectful towards Christianity.

Those of us who take our Christianity seriously have not traditionally made much noise about that. Public parades of religiosity are not an attractive spectacle – certainly they are not the British way. But since the turn of the century, a major factor has changed. Suddenly, for the first time ever, it has become fashionable among the metropolitan opinion-forming classes to express open hostility to religion in general or to Christianity in particular.

In this situation it becomes appropriate for those of us who want to see England remain a Christian country to speak up to defend our religion, in a way that might not have been necessary until recently.

To explain why I shall see it as a tragedy if England abandons its Christian heritage, let me quote some recent remarks that had nothing to do with religion, by the director of a company which specializes in advising Western firms that aim to do business in China. He commented:

We are brought up to think there are some fundamental ground rules that people follow that are not the law but are a higher level of operating than the law, and people abide by them because it is considered fair and reasonable to do so. But the Chinese are brought up from a fairly early age to believe that the only thing that is important is to win. (Geoff Mills of the SIP Group, interviewed by Bryan Glick in Computing, 6 Dec 2007.)

I spent years as a young man intensively studying China, its language, its history, and its culture, and I believe Geoff Mills’s comments are a fair summary of a deep difference between the respective societies as they have evolved over two (or in China’s case three) millennia. From my studies I took away an immense admiration for many aspects of Chinese civilization. Until a fairly short time ago, impartial observers would certainly have had to see China as a more developed, sophisticated society than that of England or Europe (it was only with our Industrial Revolution that we overtook China materially). But greatly as I admired China, I also came away from my studies profoundly thankful that I happened to be born English, and that thankfulness had much to do with the issue discussed by Mills. English people, and Europeans more generally, have a sense that there are principles which are higher than any rules laid down by human agencies, and which we are entitled to expect our governors as well as one another to respect. A society imbued with that sense has a better chance, I believe, to offer its members decent and fulfilling lives than one without it.

Whether or not one is oneself a believing Christian, one must concede that as a matter of historical fact it is Christianity which has implanted the sense described by Mills in England and Europe. Conversely, China has never been a society in which religion was a significant factor. When Buddhism reached China, many centuries after China had already become a literate, sophisticated society, it spread widely among the common people at the level of colourful ritual, but Buddhism (which in countries such as Ceylon is a highly intellectual structure of thought) never had any appeal to influential Chinese thinkers – very unlike Europe, where much philosophical thought grew out of Christianity. Westerners sometimes talk of China as having traditionally been “Confucian”. But it is stretching the word “religion” to apply it to Confucianism, as if that were a system of thought about ultimate issues analogous to Christianity or Buddhism. Confucius’s doctrines provided a range of political precepts, but they are doctrines about society and the here and now – Confucius avoided discussing, and discouraged his followers from discussing, topics which we would classify as “religious”. (See the Confucian Analects, e.g. 7.17, 7.20, 11.11.) And this lack of a central place for religion in the Chinese tradition has much to do, I believe, with the aspect of Chinese life identified by Geoff Mills. A Chinese can hope that his rulers will be benevolent rather than selfish or hostile, and at many points in Chinese history they were benevolent; but if they were not, there was no higher “court of appeal” to which Emperor as well as subjects saw themselves as subordinate. European rulers might behave badly, but at least they normally recognized that they “ought” to behave well – and the general recognition, inspired by Christianity, that rulers as well as subjects are answerable to a higher law led to the evolution of political constitutions which systematically offered subjects various degrees of protection against arbitrary action by rulers.

The point is not just about ruler/ruled relationships but about relationships between individuals, outside the political domain. We have a structure of civil law to which individuals can resort if other individuals mistreat them badly enough, but not many of us take every advantage we can of other people up to the point where they could successfully sue us if we went further. Christianity tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves. We do not come up to that high ideal, and Sunday after Sunday those of us who are churchgoers admit aloud that we have failed yet again. But people try; they may not manage to go the whole way, but they treat one another very much better than they might if Christ’s injunction had not been heard in our society.

Does that mean that non-believers cannot be good people? Of course it does not; many are. But they are like people who live off inherited wealth without maintaining or increasing it: it works fine for a while, but it will not last indefinitely. An English atheist at the beginning of the 21st century who leads a morally exemplary life is the descendant of generations of people, most of whom until quite recently would have taken the authority of the Church for granted; the rules of life which they internalized have rubbed off on descendants who in some cases repudiate that authority. Without the continuing reinforcement of Christian belief, it is implausible that those approaches to life will maintain themselves generation after generation into the future, in face of all the temptations to more selfish ways of living.

What is more, we already see that they are not maintaining themselves, at both ends of the social hierarchy. The area of English society commonly said to have been least thoroughly penetrated by Christianity is the urban working class; at the beginning of the 21st century, the idea that inner-city society is “broken” and sliding towards a Hobbesian war of all against all has become a media cliché. More worryingly, since the tone of any society is set largely from the top, our governors also seem to be abandoning traditional moral constraints. Peter Oborne in The Triumph of the Political Class (2007) documents many ways in which members of what he calls our “Political Class” are systematically repudiating standards of behaviour which their recent predecessors would have taken for granted as binding on them, and which we whom they govern still do acknowledge as binding on ourselves:

During the decades following the Second World War concepts of honour, duty and moral responsibility generally weighed high in the minds of politicians and counted for more than careerist considerations. This was partly because politicians were more closely connected with mainstream morality than has subsequently become the case … If Tony Blair had sacked lying or abusive ministers his policy would have sent out a message that the Political Class shared the ethical standards of mainstream society. Instead the decision to protect them created a dual reality. There was the world lived in by the Political Class, where men like Keith Vaz, Stephen Byers and David Blunkett were officially signed off as honest and decent by the Prime Minister of the day. Meanwhile there was an outside world, where they could be detected at once as liars or imposters. These alternate structures of perception and morality are beginning to tear British political society to shreds.

That “mainstream morality” was instilled in our society through Christianity, and it is probably no accident that those in charge of our society are abandoning it at the same period when many of them are for the first time beginning to express open hostility to Christianity.

Where this new atheism is likely ultimately to lead was well discussed by Jonathan Sacks (himself a leading Jewish rabbi) in the Spectator, 15 Jun 2013:

religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his latter-day successors fail to grasp at all. / Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more “Love your neighbour as yourself”; instead the will to power … “An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be called ‘unjust’ as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.”
Nietzsche was happy about this prospect. Sacks, and I, are not.

The metropolitan élite who are happy to eliminate religion from our national life undoubtedly believe that we shall be able to find ways of getting on fine without it. Our chattering classes currently have a strange tendency to perceive international organizations as possessing a moral authority superior to anything rooted in our particular country, and some of them would probably argue that European legislation or UN declarations on human rights will provide the moral fibre for which we used to look to the Church. [Written before Brexit.] But the EU and the UN are human organizations, so they cannot constitute moral touchstones superior to fallible human decision-makers. Someone who believes that he must not, say, murder asylum-seekers just because those currently in charge of the EU or the UN forbid it should, logically, think it quite all right to murder asylum-seekers if a new generation of political leaders with different ideas were to come along and change EU and UN policies. In a decent society, people believe that they should not kill because it is wrong, not because certain other human beings tell them not to.

Already we are beginning to encounter a brutality in the atmosphere of English public life that was not there when I was a young man. In 2007, for instance, the House of Commons science and technology committee considered the law on abortion and recommended dropping the current requirement for two doctors to consent to an abortion (to guard against it being done too casually); according to Dr Evan Harris, MP, a member of that committee, “The argument [is], it isn’t different from any other treatment”. (Quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 30 Apr 2008.) I do not pretend to know for sure whether our current abortion law is a good or a bad law – abortion is an extremely difficult issue. But I am absolutely clear that taking the life of a helpless human being needs to be considered as an act with moral implications massively more significant than run-of-the-mill medical treatments. When Christianity was more firmly entrenched in our public life, I do not believe the argument quoted by Dr Harris would have occurred to anyone.

In May 2011 various members of the British metropolitan élite dismissed Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, as naïve and quite out of order for raising moral objections to the action of American forces who invaded Pakistan and assassinated Osama bin Laden, together with some others with him, without prior negotiation with the Pakistani authorities. So far as I could see, the Archbishop was doing precisely the job he was paid to do, and in previous generations this would have been generally recognized; people might have disagreed with his interpretation of moral principles, but they would have seen that as a subject for debate, not just something to dismiss in favour of “might is right”.

(Personally, I agreed with the Archbishop. For many years, Irishmen who committed appalling atrocities in the Troubles escaped to the USA, which consistently ignored every British request for extradition. Would it have been acceptable for our special forces to go into Philadelphia or Boston and just gun them down, together with whoever happened to be in the same room at the time? I would have said not, and I am fairly sure that most Americans would agree.)

No doubt England will stagger on for some time to come with enough remnants of morality to offer a somewhat tolerable life to some proportion of the population. But the ultimate end-point of the direction in which we are drifting was described by George Orwell in 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

This is all very well, the reader may object, but Christianity depends on accepting the literal truth of an extraordinary story about happenings very remote from us in time. “How do you know that Jesus Christ really was the Son of God who after his death on the cross rose again on the third day?” Well of course I don’t know this or the rest of it in the direct way that I know, say, that daffodils bloom in my garden in spring. I have heard of people who claim that they are directly aware of the presence of God or are as certain of the truth of the Gospels as of the facts of their everyday surroundings, but personally I do not understand at all how that could be.

On the other hand, I also do not see much sense in the attitude that it’s all obviously just fairy stories, because people don’t rise from the dead, change water into wine, or what not. That reaction to my mind bespeaks a naive failure to grasp how extraordinary the everyday world is, as described by sober natural scientists many of whom have no religious belief. We all know that a thing cannot be in two different places at once, yet the physicist Richard Feynman explains to us in his 1985 book QED that fundamental particles routinely travel not along one of the various paths available to them but along all of them simultaneously, and if they did not then some quite ordinary features of the world would look different from the way they do. If the world revealed by science can be as utterly counter-intuitive as it is, I see no grounds to dismiss out of hand the strange stories in the New Testament.

(Indeed, I suspect the supernatural quality of some of the discourse which Christianity made central to European intellectual life is part of what gave European scientists the imagination to create the surprising but powerful scientific theories which have been crucial to the inauguration of the modern world.)

Saying that something is not ruled out a priori is a long way from saying it must be true, of course. Two thousand years is a long time and the Gospels are brief and unsystematic records, so is it sensible to give them credence? Well, I believe there are stronger reasons to do so than is sometimes supposed by present-day sceptics who are accustomed to the level of documentation associated with modern media. Read, for instance, William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794): he argues, at length and persuasively, that the behaviour of members of the early church would be incomprehensible, if the disciples had not actually had the experience of meeting and speaking to the resurrected Christ. The writer A.N. Wilson (who abandoned Christianity in the 1980s, but returned to it twenty years later) made the same point in 2010:

Who appeared (in the testimony of Paul written only 20 years after the event) to over 500 people in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion? Was it a phantom? Was it a fake? Were they lying? Quite possibly, of course. But then you have to wonder why those who concocted the fake were prepared to spend uncomfortable lives as missionaries, undergoing shipwrecks, persecutions and stoning, preaching this illusion so ardently; and why or how they found the courage to die heroic martyrs’ deaths defending this “lie”? (The Spectator, 3 Apr 2010)

Certainly the records are thin, compared with the records of a significant twentieth-century event. Technology and other circumstances have changed utterly over two thousand years. But relative to what one can expect to find at that distant period, the records are reasonably full.

In the end the way I look at it is that life depends on making leaps of trust. Think of getting married: you decide to trust a particular woman, though you cannot know that this is the right thing to do. She could be unfaithful to you; the only way to be sure she is not, I suppose, would be to get a private detective to check up on her – but if someone goes to those lengths, surely there is not much left of the marriage even if the detective finds nothing amiss? In practice, a happily married man has decided that his wife is someone who deserves his trust and fidelity, without worrying too much about amassing empirical evidence. Perhaps that is a reasonable analogy for acceptance of Christianity.

It is true that there are many contradictions and unclarities in the New Testament. But that does not imply that its central message is false. It is a natural consequence of the fact that the events in question happened when they did – there were no cameras to record visual details or journalists to compile reliable verbatim reports. (Indeed, if the four Gospels provided a more perfectly systematic and consistent account, that might lead us to suspect that the story was a cooked-up fiction.) Norman England (say) is closer to our time than to Christ’s, but, in order to work out the details of various important events under the Normans, historians regularly have to use skill in interpreting limited documentation. For a couple of hundred years, initially mainly in Germany, people have been applying the normal standards of historical scholarship in order to untangle the surface inconsistencies and sporadic embroidering in the New Testament so as to produce a coherent account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To my mind, what we have is an adequately convincing story. (For a reliable summary of this work I recommend C.H. Dodd, The Founder of Christianity, 1973.)

At various crucial points the Gospel story seems to me to have a telltale quality of authentic reportage rather than invented propaganda. Consider for instance the Doubting Thomas story in chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel, where one disciple who happened to be away when the resurrected Christ appeared to the others tells them that he won’t believe it, unless he can touch with his own hands the wounds where Jesus was nailed to the Cross. Is this how a real human being might react in such circumstances? Surely yes. Is it the kind of anecdote that fanatics cooking up a manifesto for an artificial ideology would choose to include? I would have said not.

(Some similar reasoning is put forward in the 1930 book Who Moved the Stone? by “Frank Morison”, pen-name of Albert Ross, though for me Ross’s oddly pompous prose style makes it difficult to judge how strong his arguments are.)

Some will see it as paradoxical for a professional academic in particular to advocate Christianity, because they think of the Church, in centuries when it had more power than today, as having been an enemy of scientific progress. But what people “know” about Church hostility to science is largely a set of urban myths, which people repeat to one another without knowing anything about the facts, like the myth that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. (In reality the Eskimo language has no more words for snow than English has.) To quote James Hannam (God’s Philosophers, 2009, pp. 2–3):

contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas.
The trial of Galileo in 1633 (which led to house arrest, not execution) has been seen as a clash between Christianity and science, but according to Hannam “Academic historians are now convinced that this had as much to do with politics and the Pope’s self-esteem as it did with science”. I certainly believe there was something wrong with a Church whose leader took it out on a layman who embarrassed him (and I think recent Popes would agree), but that is very different from seeing Christianity as hostile to intellectual progress.

In the 21st century the situation seems to be going into reverse. Many people now talk as though a materialist world view which treats everything in the universe as explainable purely in terms of interactions of physical particles and forces, leaving no room for the possibility of God, were the only permissible outlook for respectable people to hold. Dissent is not legally punishable, but it is certainly often taken as justifying dismissive scorn rather than a serious attempt to engage with an alternative point of view. If things move much further in this direction, open adherence to Christianity will hobble professional careers by making the individual look unacceptably eccentric – perhaps that is already beginning to happen.

But this is mere intellectual authoritarianism, not a rational response to Mankind’s current state of knowledge. People who imagine that “science has explained everything in physical terms” need to understand that some of our deepest present-day thinkers would vigorously disagree. David Chalmers, in The Conscious Mind (1996), says that “No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.” Thomas Nagel, in Mind and Cosmos (2012), holds that Darwinian evolutionary processes cannot account for the existence of human minds and mental categories such as meaning and value. Nagel recognizes that doubts about a mechanistic account of the origin of life “will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.” By any normal criteria of intellectual distinction, Chalmers and Nagel are among the most distinguished thinkers currently writing (one in his forties, the other in his seventies), and it is clear to both that there is far more to human life than material science could ever tell us about (though neither are setting out to shore up religious belief – as it happens, Nagel in particular is outspokenly irreligious). A Christian who is told that his beliefs are “unscientific” should simply refuse to be browbeaten.

Still, even in the 21st century, Christians in the Western world face no sanctions beyond being cold-shouldered by influential bien-pensants. They don’t get burned at the stake; whereas the torture and killing of heretics was no urban myth. (Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome in 1600 for heresy – not for saying that the Earth goes round the Sun.) Probably one of the largest factors turning people at the present day away from Christianity is awareness of the barbaric cruelties that have been practised in its name in the past. In the town of Lewes near where I am writing, there is an annual festival commemorating the seventeen Protestants who were burned to death under the Catholic Queen Mary in 1555–7 – and although England, as a historically Protestant country, makes more noise about Protestants martyred by Catholics than vice versa, plenty of Catholics were just as horribly treated under Protestant monarchs. Can an ideology which underlay such barbarism be worth our allegiance?

If it happened nowadays, surely not. But we have learned a great deal about ourselves over the past four centuries, in particular about the limitations to human knowledge and certainty. Even physical science, which once seemed so solidly founded as to be totally unassailable, we now see (following the twentieth-century philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper) to be no more than a collection of not-yet-refuted conjectures. Isaac Newton’s account of gravity and other fundamental physical phenomena appeared to be definitively established for all time – until Albert Einstein came along and demonstrated that it was in fact mistaken. If we cannot be sure even about things like that, we certainly cannot be sure about arcane details of theology. But no-one in the Middle Ages understood that yet. They took for granted that it was possible to list out all the knowledge that matters for human life as straightforwardly as the multiplication tables. And, unfortunately, one of the things they were quite sure of was that people’s detailed stance towards religion during their lives on earth would determine whether they graduated after death to eternal bliss or spent eternity roasting in hell. If you take that for granted, then you are going to see someone who deliberately spreads religious views which you count as heretical as even worse than a person who goes round deliberately spreading some horrible disease such as AIDS. Instead of sentencing multitudes of decent folk to painful deaths, the heretic is sentencing them to eternal torment. If you really believe that, then you might well feel justified in killing off the spreader of the virus in a way nasty enough to discourage imitators.

We are, rightly, more humble nowadays about the limits to human certainty – and once one appreciates that we cannot be sure even about science, let alone religion, then it becomes inconceivable to cite religion as a justification for barbaric punishments. Humility about our human limitations is itself an attitude highly consistent with the Christian message. But, tragically, it took us a very long time collectively to get our minds round that one.

All Christians today (so far as I know) understand very well that disagreement with others on points of religious doctrine cannot amount to justification for violence towards them. It is deeply regrettable that the consequences of our earlier foolishness live on today in the shape of division between separate Christian denominations. I have no patience, and I do not believe I ought to have patience, with many of the abstruse doctrinal differences which separate church from church. Take for instance the Procession of the Holy Ghost – the picturesque name for the issue about the relationship between the Third Person of the Trinity and the other two Persons. In the Church of England and other Western churches, we commonly assert our faith each week by reciting the Nicene Creed, which contains a sentence according to which the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”. The creed of the Eastern (Greek and Russian Orthodox) churches states that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from God the Father alone. As I understand it, the word filioque (“and from the Son”) was deliberately inserted into the Nicene Creed as a political move aimed at making the Eastern churches heterodox by Western standards. How absurd! Personally, I cannot claim to have a clear understanding of the Holy Spirit concept in the first place; the suggestion that any human beings might claim to be so well-informed that they can decisively settle whether the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from both the other Persons or only from one is to me laughably arrogant. And the same holds for many other doctrinal differences between the denominations.

(In compiling this web page I have learned that the Lutheran World Federation decided in 1990 that the filioque clause was not essential and should not be insisted on in interactions with Orthodox Christians. Good for them. The Anglican communion ought to follow suit.)

I believe we English are very fortunate to have the kind of national church we do. The Church of England represents to my mind an admirable compromise between Roman Catholicism on one side and the Reformed churches on the other – eliminating the intellectual authoritarianism which one cannot deny to have been a significant feature of the former tradition, while retaining the ritual aspects of worship that nonconformist churches tend to reject, but which are emotionally important to many of us. Nevertheless, although I personally am not tempted to switch denominational allegiance, I of course see committed Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc. as true Christians as much as my own pew-mates. Pope Benedict XVI strikes me as a quite excellent Christian leader. [Added in 2013: now ex-Pope. His successor may be fine too, it is too early for me to judge.] To treat the unfortunate schisms between denominations as a ground for rejecting Christianity in general is not intelligent.

I said that I feel fortunate in having been born into a society with a congenial national church; and I realize that another line sceptics might take is to say “It’s all just luck – he happened to be born into a Christian background so he accepts that, others happened to be born into other religious backgrounds, or into none, and they acquire their respective religious commitments or lack thereof accordingly – one should not mistake accidents of one’s parentage for insight into ultimate truth”.

I agree, and I do not believe that I make that mistake. As it happens, my own parents were not churchgoers; I found my own way to church in my early teens, there was no nudging and no-one went with me. It is true that I was living in a Christian country and attending schools which formally acknowledged the authority of Christianity, as (certainly at that period) most English schools did. On the other hand, even in the 1950s there was no shortage of people in my environment who rejected Christianity or were simply indifferent to religion, and there was no kind of pressure on me which might have discouraged me from joining them. In my late teens and twenties I did give up religion for a while; but I went back to it later.

But that (the sceptic may say) relates to the choice between religion and no religion, which may well be more to do with the individual’s choices than with the lottery of birth. The accident-of-birth argument, though, is really about choice of one religion over another religion. Surely I have to admit that it is because I happen to be English that I am a Christian rather than an adherent of another religion?

Part of my answer to that would be that from what I have learned, it is misleading to think of “religion” as a single universal category of which each corner of the world has its own example(s). In Europe, we know mainly about three “religions”: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These are in a sense different examples of a single category: each is a body of doctrine which relates to an all-powerful supernatural Being, and which makes exclusivity claims – rather like joining a political party, giving your allegiance to any one of the three is incompatible with adherence to either of the other two. But when one looks further afield, the systems which we in England classify as religions are not necessarily like that at all. I am impressed by what I understand of Buddhism, at least in its original, “Hinayana” form – I have not myself tried to adopt it as a way of life, but I believe it might be a good one. However, so far as I am aware one could perfectly sincerely be both a Buddhist and a Christian: to treat the two as incompatible would be like saying that someone cannot be a chamber-music enthusiast at the same time as being a member of the Conservative Party. The things are not opposed but at right-angles to one another. (Buddhism does not teach about a God at all, so it certainly does not enjoin belief in a non-Christian God.)

I do not know enough about Hinduism or the other religions of India to pursue this discussion with reference to them. But if someone says that there is no better reason than accidents of birth for people to give their allegiance to Christianity rather than to another religion, in practice for a European this means: rather than to Judaism or Islam; and I believe there are good reasons for preferring Christianity. Christianity inculcates behaviour patterns which make for a more humane society, if enough members of society strive to adopt them. Christianity is a development of Judaism; Jesus was a Jew, and he told us “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete” (Matthew 5.17): we are entitled to take over anything worthwhile in Judaism into Christianity. Personally, I think it is a pity that Christians do not practice some of the Jewish observances that take place within the family circle; that religion has a very positive effect in terms of supporting and strengthening family life. I am less convinced that distinctively Jewish rather than Christian beliefs and observances achieve much for the public life of society as a whole, but for most of us the point is irrelevant – Judaism is not on the menu, because it is the possession of a particular ethnic group, and does not put itself forward as an option available to humanity in general. As for Islam, at the present point in history it is scarcely controversial to say that apologists for that religion have quite a job on their hands to convince the rest of us that their religion is even compatible with life in a civilized society. (George Pell, R.C. Archbishop of Sydney, commented in 2006 that he had tried reading the Koran and noting down the passages where it advocates violence; “There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages”.)

Some would like to revive the pagan religion followed by our forefathers before Christianity. Most people who talk that way are naïve types with vague ideas about being at one with Nature, who would run a mile from paganism as it was actually practised in England (which seems to have involved a great deal of human sacrifice, gang rape, and so forth). But there are Continental intellectuals such as Alain de Benoist who argue in all seriousness that Europe needs to return to its pagan roots.

There are many answers to this. One is that we don’t really know much in detail about what pre-Christian European religions were like: what force can there be in an argument for an unknown? Also, what we do know about the paganism of our own Germanic forebears suggests that it was sometimes shallowly derivative. What is the story of Odin hanging nine nights on a tree, as “an offering to Odin, myself to myself” (Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation), but a childish aping of the Crucifixion story? And third, the little we do know about Germanic paganism makes it sound pretty obnoxious. De Benoist himself says, approvingly, that it means treating power rather than justice as a supreme value. He writes as though the only thing holding us back from quitting our churches in favour of pagan sacred groves is lack of awareness that there was religion before Christianity; in fact many of us are well aware of this, but as decent and intelligent people we are glad to have moved away from that religion. (In fairness I would add that these criticisms of Germanic paganism might not apply to the rather different religion of the ancient Greeks. But with that, we English lack the blood-ties which de Benoist seems to see as important.)

Realistically, for most of us the choice is between Christianity and irreligion. I choose Christianity. I believe that England, and the world, would be better places if more people did so; and I believe that this is an intelligent, well-founded judgement.

British diffidence is a good thing, at periods when the foundations of our civilization are not seriously threatened. At present they are. So we ought to be worrying less about being Britishly unassertive, and more about actively defending what is good in our inheritance.

[Added in 2018:] The bulk of the above essay dates from about ten years ago. Re-reading it now, there is one respect in which I would modify the views I expressed. I described the Church of England as a particularly congenial Christian church, and for most of my life it has been. But under its current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, it has been behaving in a way that makes it difficult to continue in membership – an issue I discuss on another webpage.

Geoffrey Sampson

last changed 20 Aug 2023