“In the past, Europeans and Americans employed the same expressions without fear of being misunderstood. They began from the same philosophical premise, the doctrine according to which man possesses rights prior to, and independent of, his belonging to a political community, nation, or state. The European philosophers Locke and Kant expressed themselves in exactly the same way as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams [American Founders]: man came into the world ‘endowed’ with unalienable rights. Endowed by whom? No one had any doubts about this: man had been endowed by God. By what God? No one hesitated here either: by the Christian God, or more precisely by the Judeo-Christian God, for it was the Judeo-Christian God who created man in his image, and the Christian God who became man and endured suffering in the human condition. This baptismal act is the historical foundation of liberalism. Historical, I say, because the intellectual and political battle of liberalism against the old social hierarchies and despotisms – including the alliance of throne and altar – was fought and won by adopting a Christian political theology. Conceptual, I say, because this political theology, explicitly or implicitly, offers the best tools to justify the dignity of man and, as a consequence, the concept of human rights.”
I make no apology for starting with an extended book review of a work published in 2008 by a distinguished non-Christian, Marcello Pera, entitled, Why we should call ourselves Christians. He is a professor of the philosophy of science and a former president of the Italian Senate (2001-2006). He believes that “if we remove the Christian underpinnings from human rights, not only will liberal doctrine collapse, but Western civilization will fall along with it.” Nor would this be the first time this happened. It happened relatively recently, he argues, when much of Europe had actively turned from a Christian to a truly pagan and a materialist philosophy. At that time “great liberal thinkers recognized that Europe’s descent into hell had been precipitated or promoted by the rejection of religion and of Christian ethics.” He lists three liberal witnesses.
Karl Popper, at the outbreak of the Second World War, wrote: “our Western civilization owes its rationalism, its faith in the rational unity of man and in the open society, and especially its scientific outlook, to the ancient Socratic and Christian belief in the brotherhood of all men.” Then in the worst days of the war when Nazi forces “were on the verge of overwhelming our Western civilization, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote a powerful and influential essay in which he explained ‘why we cannot help calling ourselves Christians’.” And Friedrich von Hayek, after the war was won, said he was “convinced that unless this breach between true liberal and religious convictions can be healed there is no hope for a revival of liberal forces.”
Where is Europe today and how has it got there?
So what does Pera think of Europe now? Let me quote again:
“Today, politically speaking, liberals have won for the most part. The West has liberal constitutions, liberal institutions, liberal economies, and liberal systems of education. But we are so far from “the end of history” that the same breach between liberalism and Christianity that shook our civilization a few generations ago is now presenting itself in a new form. Not in the violent forms of Nazism or communism, but in the form of liberal secularism. For the destinies of Europe and the West, this ideology is no less dangerous; it is rather more insidious. It does not wear the brutal face of violence, but the alluring smile of culture. With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into licence, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.”
Writing, it seems, just before the economic collapse of 2008, Perra goes some way to illustrating the truth of Jesus’ words in Luke 16.8: “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” But how is it that Europe has become so secularised and is, at the same time, becoming so “illiberal” not least towards Christians and their faith on which its liberalism is based? One factor has been education.
“Secularism” was invented in the mid 19th century. In 1851 (ten years before the founding of Jesmond Parish Church) a freethinker, George Holyoake,
wanted a less alienating term than “infidel” or “atheist” to be used for those who disbelieved and opposed Christianity. The term that Holyoake chose was “secularist”, certainly a clever ploy and a very antiseptic word for a growing and aggressive movement in Europe as the 1870s discovered.
Significantly, in 1870 the State in Britain began to play its part in education with the Forster Education Act. For centuries education had been a Christian enterprise. Nor did the State want Christians to retreat. However, in the new legislation there was a clause, to satisfy Free Churchmen (the “Cowper-Temple clause”), that said: “No religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination shall be taught in the school”. Yes, the Bible was expected to be read and there was an option for conscientious withdrawal. And, yes, “Mere Christianity” sounds good. But without any clear definition of belief a school ethos could never be a bulwark against the rampant and aggressive secularism that was now on the march. William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, put the annus horribilis as 1872. In that year he said: “It is not only the Christian Church, or only the Holy Scripture, or only Christianity, which is attacked;” but “the ties” were being snapped “which, under the still venerable name of Religion, unite man with the unseen world, and lighten the struggles and the woes of life by the hope of a better land.”
Humanist Manifesto I and II
Then a new and even more aggressive secularism appeared in the 1930s; but now it called itself, with another clever ploy, “humanism”. The year 1933 saw the rise of Hitler: it also saw the publication of the Humanist Manifesto. This Manifesto explicitly identified humanism as religious. What it deplored was, “the identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century.” Among the major theses of its own “religious humanism” were the following:
“Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created … Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values … Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks its development and fulfilment in the here and now … In place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a co-operative effort to promote social well-being … Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”
True, this Humanist Manifesto was generally ignored. The authors are now forgotten. But its influence came through the giant of the group and the principal author of the document, John Dewey (1859-1952), the philosopher and educational theorist. The manifesto certainly reflected his views. And through this document he was able to disseminate them in strategic places - for example, colleges of education. His views have shaped modern education to a profound degree, steering it away from its Christian roots and in a secularist direction. This has had disastrous consequences. Nor are these just many cases of anti-Christian discrimination. Following the plausible suggestions of R.S Peters, education is “initiation” into a heritage. It is an inheritance of “sentiments, beliefs, imaginings, understandings and activities”. Too often these now are not Christian but positively secularist.
Secularism now holds to the Humanist Manifesto II. It came out in 1973 and “came out” on sex: “In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct … Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their life-styles as they desire.” Current sex education in the spirit of Manifesto II undoubtedly is “harming others” through peer pressure that compels “them to do likewise”. The 1988 Education Reform Act’s clauses that require a daily act of worship to “be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character;” and that local syllabi of religious education “shall reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian” have been incapable, with notable exceptions, of withstanding this secular tide or, to quote Gladstone, of “re-uniting man with the unseen world”. So what is the answer?
We need overtly Christian head-teachers and teachers in State Schools working for a new liberalism and trying to initiate children into a heritage of Christian sentiments, beliefs, imaginings, understandings and activities in a truly liberal way. We also need new Christian Free Schools that will find that easier and can challenge State Schools to follow their example. Pray, therefore, and if you have qualifying children, you can make the proposed Clayton Academy your first choice by responding through the website: claytonacademy.org.uk.