The Magical Spell of Faith
God’s SatNav for Britain
By Willem Sander van Boxtel
The first time I set eyes upon the glorious House of Lords chamber, in the summer of 2013, I was an ignorant tourist in the UK. With blissful awe I gazed on the golden decorations, the wooden benches, the leather seats, the red armrests. The red armrests which only seemed to be added to one bench. But the question why did not race through my fifteen-year old mind. Only much, much later did I find out the Bishops were granted those seats. The Bishops? Yes, the Bishops.
To a Dutchman, the notion of an unelected body of Parliament was a strange one – although after moving here, I have grown used to it – but the right of senior clergymen to help decide laws that apply to everyone, including non-Anglicans, is one I still cannot get behind. And I know I’m not alone. This tradition is but one of the examples that show faith, not just the Church of England, but faith in general, is still paid extraordinary deference in twenty-first century Britain, and beyond.
Moreover, in a type of Americanisation – and a bad type at that – we seem to be stuck with leaders who claim to feel inspiration from God; although, if the recent past is anything to go by, it could be argued God’s sense of direction is about as bad as the average tourist’s in Birmingham. Especially to relative newcomers like myself the strange and worrying excess of respect paid to bringing one’s religion into public life is an inexplicable concept.
The House of Lords – God’s Meddling Finger
The twenty-six Lords Spiritual, as the aging Bishops given the privilege of attending Parliament are called, have been in the House of Lords since its early days. One of them opens the House with prayers every day – perhaps an interesting, objectionable notion for another piece of writing – and their role in the Lords is, thank God, non-partisan. Although, perhaps the party of God is more limiting than any political grouping we know.
Interestingly, the Church of England website states the bishops represent “all people of faith.” I’m positive most Muslims would disagree. As a matter of fact, when Henry VIII founded the Church of England and allowed Bishops to remain in Parliament, he inevitably set the precedent for an inherently divisive Parliament. Putting representatives of the cult that burned multiple people alive on unprovable claims in your legislative is in itself a rather extraordinary move, but there we are.
Moreover, the Bishops’ intelligence, and their ability to govern us, is questionable. I would not want to insult any fellow primate, but when the Archbishop of Carlisle claimed the 2007 floods were God’s punishment for the “moral decadence” of our country, I can’t but doubt his judgement. God’s aim must have been slightly off, though; why else would these floods have hit largely rural areas, and not major cities, the centres of “arrogance” and “greed”? I don’t think Worcestershire is a hot-bed of explicit homosexuality, after all. But the Archbishop can dream. As can anyone. But dreamers should not decide matters of national importance.
When Parliament came to represent not just the English and Welsh, but also the Scottish and Irish, the Anglican bishops were already stuck in the limbo of having to represent a multi-denominational country. With the influx of migrants with other beliefs in modern times, no one can seriously argue the Bishops are in Parliament to make the case for people of faith. Religion is divisive, as we have seen countless times again. In Northern Ireland, people killed each other and each other’s children for what kind of Christian they were for decades. Do you think any Irish Catholic would be happy to have an Anglican bishop speak on behalf of them? What about our fellow Muslim citizens? And, more to the point, what about the most important minority in British society today: those of us who do not believe? Are we even a minority anymore?
I think it is more than evident these Bishops, however well-intended they may be, do not deserve to have a special say in how our laws are made. Not a bigger say than the rest of us, anyway. The refusal of successive governments to reform this antiquated arm of our legislative is worrying, and is yet another example of how religion still very much has its own way in this country.
Remembrance Sunday – Who’s Sent to Hell?
The annual ceremony held at the Cenotaph in honour of military dead is, to any benevolent human being, a worthwhile cause and something we must continue to adhere value to. Unfortunately, this occasion, too, has been poisoned by God’s meddling finger. In remembrance ceremonies around the world, the dead are remembered and their names passed on to posterity in a secular way. But not here.
The Cenotaph ceremony is “enriched” by the presence of a squadron of patriarchs, priests, bishops, imams, rabbis, and other religious prelates who seem to convey a general aura of “look at us, we’re so co-operative.” Let’s not mention the fact that presumably each one of them believes servicemen belonging to any of the other representatives’ religions are now in their imaginary hells, but oh well. Moreover, the service is partially led by the Bishop of London, surprise surprise.
The main issue with this, of course, is one of inclusivity. Not only are not all religious denominations represented at the Cenotaph – I bet Scientologists would love to commemorate the dead – but far more importantly, there is no secular presence attending. When the Cenotaph was built in 1920, King George V intentionally refused to add religious symbols to the statue. It was designed to be an irreligious monument, commemorating servicemen and women of all faiths and, importantly, none. Why have our leaders forsaken the intended sentiment of this national monument?
Here, too, God’s breath seems to infect our national ceremonies without anyone – except the religious themselves – having any say in it. I would ask him to eat a mint or spray some mouth freshener and allow us to conduct our memorial services, and our state politics, taking everyone’s views into account. Not just those of a limited amount of religious people. War dead commemoration is too much of an important issue to be left to religious men.
Mrs May’s Divine Hotline
A rare interview opportunity by the Sunday Times exposed Prime Minister Theresa May as a theist stateswoman. “I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do”, the woman in charge of Britain during one of its most turbulent times in recent history claimed. Whatever one might think of Brexit – the beauty of atheism is that it rises above politics as far as issues like this are concerned – I don’t think God is going to have a positive influence on the exit process.
Interestingly, the Prime Minister then went on to say about decisions she makes with help of her God Hotline: “I’ll think it through, have a gut instinct, look at the evidence, work through the arguments.” The evidence? I don’t want to claim Mrs May is unintelligent, but stressing the importance of evidence whilst being a practising Church of England member is one of the most self-imploding and self-refuting positions I have ever heard.
The idea of having a Church of England-inspired government is in itself a rather scary one. The church “founded on the family values of Henry VIII”, as Christopher Hitchens aptly put it, isn’t one I would base my morals off. God sending himself as his son down to earth to be hideously maimed doesn’t provide a decent example to our politicians. Nor, more to the point, does the man who was prepared to viciously murder his own child to show devotion to a deity (Genesis 22:2-13). Will the divine injunctions to murder entire peoples guide our negotiations with the EU? (Genesis 19:24-5; Exodus 14:28; Numbers 11:1-2-33; 16:35; 49; 1:7; 25:8-9; Joshua 10:10-11; I Samuel 6:19; I could go on, and on, and on…)
Many heads will roll before Article 50, it seems, if God’s example is anything to go by.
In short, the obviously fake guidance from God some politicians seem to enjoy, and the privileges they demand from it, should be met with strong opposition. Are there any reasons that prevent politicians from saying they’re not religious? From saying they derive their decision-making from factual evidence, from experience, from learned instinct? I cannot think of any. Religion, therefore, seems to still enjoy this special status in the minds of most people. Extraordinary deference is paid to those who claim to be inspired by blood myths and masochistic worship. By slaughter, murder, torture, and belief without evidence. This is the twenty-first century. It is high time to stop this medieval chain of thought and focus on the material world, which is the only world we have.