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The Cross, The Lion, and The Unicorn

Is it possible to believe in both Britain and God?

Last Tuesday, the latest scion of the atheistic fad visited St. Andrews. At the behest of St Andrews’ Carnegie Society, Alex O’Connor, whose hugely popular YouTube channel, Cosmic Skeptic, makes him the priest at the pulpit for modern atheism, came to our small town.

O’Connor didn’t need zeal to convince — he was preaching to the (un)converted. Britain today is one of the least religious parts of the world — and though St Andrews is a little more religious than much of Britain, it’s not significantly so. A brief scan of census data reveals that a plurality of the town is non-religious — with 43 per cent of St Andreans describing themselves as such. 

I myself am one of that 43 per cent. Having been unconvinced by the shallow conviction of the Anglican church I was born into, I, like most of the UK, have fallen passively into unbelief. But unlike most of the UK, this is not something I am proud of. Religion should be enormously exciting. Yet, every encounter I’ve had with it has been prosaic and conformist — devoid of inspiration and lacking imagination. 

On the whole, most of my interactions with the Church of England remind me of a scene from the seminal comedy Yes Prime Minister. Sir Humphrey Appleby, the chief mandarin, advises the PM Jim Hacker, to appoint a “modernist” as Bishop. When asked what “modernist” means in the context of the church, Hacker retorts that “the word modernist is code for non-believer.” My criticism is an obvious one: how can I expect to believe in a religion that hardly believes in itself?

More generally, religion gets a bad reputation, and as the likes of O’Connor demonstrate, when critically engaged with, it is more often condemned than understood. Yes, that’s because often religion is associated more with the poky parochialism of parish churches than the exciting, dynamic role that made it shake and make worlds in the axial age. But it’s not just that.

It's also because we’re genuinely uncritical and intolerant as a society, unwilling to listen to people that have different viewpoints, or approach issues from a different place from us. Sometimes that comes coddled in the faux intellectualism of ‘experts’ such as O’Connor, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (all British), whose atheism is brash and assertive. But often, it’s more subtle, more insidious, and deeper than that. 

Tune into Question Time on the BBC for a sense of what I mean. Unsophisticated questions interested only in bettering a politician or journalist make for uncomfortable viewing. The loud, self-congratulatory applause of the in-crowd after the pointed question to the defenceless minister of state makes me squirm. Why can’t people see that there’s more than one way of looking at things — that even politicians are people (though they might not seem like it), and that not everything is a simple question of right and wrong? 

I’m reminded of a sketch by the comedic duo Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. In a parody of Question Time, the camera flits between different questioners in a studio audience, each with a question more moronic than the last. Among the questions asked is: “If the bankers the bonuses the bankers the bonuses, it’s disgusting. If the Tories were really serious about it they’d tax the bankers the bonuses to 90%.’ applause‘If all the Eton Tories who went to Harrow who went to comprehensives, then perhaps we’d still have the grammar schools actually.” Applause. Another questioner asks: “I just don’t understand this Tracey Emin art.” To top it all off, without context, another asks: “Why can’t the Government just admit it got it wrong.”

Behind it all lies a deep intolerance, an allergy to nuance, and the sense that a narrative is being forced upon anyone who disagrees with an angry mass of mainstream opinion. Most of the time, we’re not threatened by the constrictive guardrails it places around our conceptual world, but when something serious comes up — such as religion — Britain pounces on the lone adventurer of thought. 

Matthew 6:24-26 argues that you can’t love two Gods — you have to choose Jesus or money. I would argue something similar. These days, you have to choose what you believe in — is it Britain, or is it God?

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