By Melanie Phillips
You really would need to have a heart harder than the five-pence piece in the Christmas pud not to feel sorry at present for Professor Richard Dawkins.
Christmas must be such a terrible trial for the planet’s most celebrated — and angriest — atheist. All that cheerfulness and pleasure associated with Christianity’s main celebration seems to drive him simply nuts.
Indeed, just a few days ago he lunged into yet another wild denunciation of religious faith. This time, the Chief Inquisitor of Unbelief declared that raising a child as a Catholic was worse than subjecting it to sexual abuse.
His view of religion is as cheerless as it is unbalanced. As countless others prepare for an enjoyable and — dare one say it — even spiritually uplifting holiday, Professor Dawkins seems to become all the more miserable.
If Charles Dickens were writing A Christmas Carol today, surely he would have replaced Ebenezer Scrooge with the figure of the joyless, rage-fuelled Dawkins spitting out ‘Bah, humbug!’ at families sitting down to the Christmas turkey.
After last week’s census details which showed that Christianity in Britain is in decline, Dawkins rejoiced that it was ‘on the way out in this country’.
Well, this is tantamount to rejoicing that Britain and western civilisation are on the way out. For Christianity underpins their most fundamental moral values — ones that both believers and non-believers hold dear, such as the difference between right and wrong, respect for other people and doing good things rather than bad.
It is also woven into Britain’s literature, art, music, history and national identity.
What’s more, despite the decline in believers, nearly two-thirds of the population still describe themselves as Christian. If Britain stops being a mainly Christian country, then it will stop being recognisably Britain.
It is not just Dawkins and his followers, however, who are dancing prematurely on Christianity’s grave.
In the eyes of just about the entire governing class, cultural milieu and intelligentsia, belief in Christianity is viewed at best as an embarrassment, and at worst as proof positive of imbecility.
Indeed, Christianity has long been the target of sneering comedians, blasphemous artists and the entire human rights industry — all determined to turn it into a despised activity to be pursued only by consenting adults in private.
As it happens, I myself am not a Christian; I am a Jew. And Jews have suffered terribly under Christianity in the past.
Yet I passionately believe that if Britain and the West are to continue to be civilised places, it is imperative that the decline in Christianity be reversed.
For it is the Judeo-Christian ethic which gave us belief in the innate equality of all human beings, the need to put others’ welfare before your own and the understanding of absolute truth.
Without this particular religious underpinning, our society will lose the moral bonds that instil respect and care for other human beings. Without a belief in absolute truth, it will succumb to the dominance of lies.
And it will also lose the understanding, embodied in both Judaism and Christianity, that government should be distinct from religious rule — a belief which eventually helped pave the way for democracy.
Lose Christianity, and what remains will be a vacuum which will result in religious, secular and ethnic groups fighting each other — and with the most brutal and ruthless filling the void.
Of course, non-believers can be good people, and believers can behave atrociously.
But non-believers who subscribe to the basic moral tenets of western society are subscribing — whether they like it or not — to the values given to the world by Judaism and Christianity.
Such people may not believe in God, but they were not born with these moral values encoded in their DNA. They are inescapably shaped by the Judeo-Christian culture in which such unbelievers have grown up.
Without that culture, our society would be a savage and uncivilised place, governed by selfishness, self-centredness and narcissism.
Indeed, I would go even further. Rather than religion and reason being diametrically opposed to each other — as non-believers contend — it was, in fact, the Hebrew Bible which gave us reason in the first place, by introducing the then revolutionary idea that the world had been created by a rational intelligence in linear time.
It was this belief that gave us the idea that the universe was governed by natural laws, which in turn gave rise to science and modernity.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the alarming slide in Christian belief has gone hand in hand with both the relentless coarsening and brutalisation of our culture and the progressive flight from rationality — as demonstrated by the prevalence of conspiracy theories, resistance to factual evidence, and belief in the occult. In other words, people who stop believing in God start making religions of other things.
For the religious instinct seems to be hard-wired in us. Some 70 per cent believe in a soul, and more than half in life after death, and these numbers are rising.
Although many no longer go regularly to church, some 85 per cent go at least once a year — perhaps to the Christmas carol service. Despite its regrettable over-commercialisation, Christmas may be the one time when some people are exposed to the Christian message.
Many would like that message to be stronger; and not just at Christmas. But for religion to thrive, there has to be strong leadership. And both in the political and religious spheres, that has been sorely lacking.
Christmas is quintessentially the time when people get together with their families. And families are at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But for years, political leaders have done everything in their power to undermine the family by promoting nihilistic sexual licence. Even David Cameron’s supposedly ‘family-friendly’ but in fact socially liberal policies hardly correspond to Judeo-Christian principles.
Of course, we don’t expect our politicians to be religious leaders. But if society is to adhere to basic moral principles, politicians have to uphold them. Yet so much of the political class is now governed by the desire for power for its own sake, rather than to make a better world.
The leadership of the Church itself has hardly been any better. But there are high hopes of the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who appears to have a more robust and muscular understanding of Christianity than did his predecessor.
The challenge he faces, however, is much more profound than the divisions over women or gays in the clergy. These are but symptoms of the real malaise afflicting the Church of England — which is nothing less than a loss of belief in its own Scriptural doctrines.
This deep demoralisation can be traced all the way back to the birth of modernity itself, in the 18th century.
In contemporary times, it is why the Church has grovelled on the one hand to godless liberalism, and on the other to Islam. Desperately trying to appease both to stave off its own demise, the Church has succeeded instead in creating a vacuum which has only hastened it.
The single most urgent task for Bishop Welby is surely to find a language with which the Church can reach out to all those millions who are searching for something outside themselves in which to believe but who no longer find it in Christianity.
This is not just about saving the Church of England. It is about saving the culture, identity and civilisation of Britain and the West.