Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Is God Back? ‘Doing God’ in the Public Square

The Prime Minister hosts an Easter reception for Church leaders
Crown Copyright under Creative Commons Licence
For Christians, Easter is a time for resurrection. On Easter Day, billions of Christians all over the world gathered in churches, in homes and in the open air to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is also a time for surprises - after all, none of the first disciples expected to find an empty tomb on that first Easter morning. However, for me too, this Easter morning was a surprise. Both my churches on Easter morning were packed with regulars, visitors and lots of local people who don’t come to church very often. In one of my churches the congregation was well over double what it is on an average Sunday. It was a welcome surprise, and something that was replicated in churches across the country.

This experience of welcoming people into church people who don’t come that regularly was all played out amid the backdrop of an almighty row caused by David Cameron’s Easter message in the Church Times in which he called Britain ‘a Christian country.’ No sooner has his words been reported than a group of eminent atheists and secularists wrote to the Daily Telegraph to accuse the Prime Minister of ‘fostering alienation’ and claiming that Cameron’s words ‘needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people.’

The row is still rumbling on. Other faith groups were quick to point out that they recognise that Britain has a ‘Christian heritage’, and today the Attorney General and the Work and Pensions Secretary have both attacked those who deny that Britain is a Christian country.

So is David Cameron right? Is Britain a Christian country? If a Christian country is a country in which the majority attend regular worship and have an active faith then the answer is probably no. However, if a Christian country means that its laws and heritage are based on Christian principles and that the majority either subscribe to a non-doctrinal Christian culture then the answer is probably yes - certainly my own experience in parish ministry points to small numbers of active worshippers but a very large number of cultural Christians. Either way, for me, whether or not Britain is a Christian country is not what concerns me in this debate, as the facts and statistics that both sides use are always subjective.

The anger that atheists and secularist have towards people of faith is something that I have always found troubling. Prominent and aggressive new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have for sometime now been attacking religious faith as irrational, dangerous and deluded. Atheists are often very keen to blame religion as the cause for all the world’s ills, while ignoring the fact that the 20th century’s most brutal regimes (Nazi, Stalinist, Fascist and Communist) were predominantly secular or aggressively atheist.

There appears to be a mistaken belief amongst some in the intellectual establishment that atheism is a neutral philosophy and that it should be the default position for all rational human beings. This in turn leads many secularists to try and marginalise faith away from public life and into the private sphere. Whenever the Church speaks out on an issue there are always secular voices who tell Christian leaders that their faith should be kept in the pulpit. Christian faith can never be something that simply affects our own private spirituality. The faith Christians have in Jesus is something that affects all of who we are and it has something positive to say in the public sphere. No-one ever suggests that atheism has no place in public life and should be kept private, so why do atheists hypocritically demand that religious faith should be silent in public discourse?

In a liberal democracy the voices of all are valid contributors to public debate. That includes both atheists and people of religious faith. No group has the right to demand silence from another group. That is not how a liberal democracy functions.

The Church is called to make a positive contribution to human flourishing and that includes speaking passionately and prophetically into the public sphere. We are not called to police the bedroom (as many Christians mistakenly seem to obsess about) but instead to share God’s love with others, improve the lives of the poor and oppressed, and to make Christ known to those who don’t know him. 

The end of Christianity is much prophesied by the new atheists, but perhaps the reason why many new atheists are so aggressive towards those with faith is because God might just be back.

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