Ghetto contentment

The Jewish cemetery, in the Prague ghetto (personal photo, 2009)

In the wake of the recent insanities on Capitol Hill, I have taken to re-reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s excellent book, On Looking Into the Abyss, Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. Published in 1994, it is perhaps unlikely that Himmelfarb (who died towards the end of 2019) would have anticipated these events, as unlikely as it would have been for John Stuart Mill to have anticipated the outworking of his thesis, On Liberty, the book which has been a foundational influence on modern liberalism. Mill benefits from a very clear-sighted critique in Chapter IV of Himmelfarb’s book, entitled Liberty: “One Very Simple Principle”? which demonstrates that the kind of naïve reductionism at the heart of On Liberty has not weathered the passage of time very well. Indeed, the clue to the fundamental weakness in Mill’s optimism about liberalism is to be found in another of his essays, Nature, written only a few months before he commenced On Liberty. It would be difficult to find two views of human nature which had less in common, but it was the naïvely optimistic one which prevailed, because it was the view which most suited the mood of a particular faction of Enlightenment thinkers.

In the USA, Himmelfarb was regarded as a conservative, but in the UK seems to have been favoured by those on the Left (Gordon Brown was a bit of a fan). Certainly, her analysis of the history of ideas has relatively few peers, and upon re-reading it, I was struck afresh by how little the current secular discourse demonstrates any kind of awareness of its past. Political polemic, certainly in its modern guise, appears to float, unsupported, in mid-air, and therein lies the danger of any superficial attractions for Christians who wish to be ‘salt and light’ within Western culture.

Himmelfarb demonstrates how swiftly the secular embodiment of political constructs tend to morph. In her chapter From Marx to Hegel, in commenting on the movement from Hegel to Marx (and back again), via the ‘Young Hegelians’, she comments “What is so fascinating about this story is how rapidly this movement of ideas worked itself out…Each deviation inspired a greater deviation, until the entire, beautifully articulated structure of Hegelianism lay in ruins.” (p.58). A few pages later, she follows through this theme, stating that, “… this movement of thought – from Hegelianism to Nietzscheanism, one might say – took place in a single decade and on the part of a very small group of very bright, very bold, very articulate and very young men.” (p.61, my emphasis). This was a world of ideas which kicked off by creating a God of reason rather than revelation (Hegel), then evolved into the idea of the man-god (Feuerbach) and swiftly moved onto the godless man (Stirner). Marx’s deeply unflattering concept of the proletariat flows out of this process.

John Stuart Mill would no doubt be somewhat shocked to see what modern liberalism looks like today. Nietzsche had understood that Mill’s attempt to secularise morality by divorcing it from Christianity was doomed (he called Mill a ‘Flathead’), but at least Mill had some sort of sense of what morality looked like (albeit borrowed from a Christianised memory). In that matter, he was certainly not a relativist, whereas, unless one is evangelically promulgating the very latest version of extremist ideology, any perspective other than relativism is regarded as the unforgivable sin. (As Himmelfarb demonstrates, these kinds of ideology do not exactly excel themselves when it comes to consistency.) And, in its modern guise, secular liberalism has retained within itself one key component of Mill’s liberalism – namely a profound intolerance towards the public articulation or manifestation of Christian belief. Mill graciously ‘allowed’ (within his model of a liberal society) for such outmoded worldviews to persist, but he wanted them to remain firmly within the ghetto – there is, in his treatment of the subject a very stark, almost binary distinction between the public and the private spheres. He really does not like the idea of a morality which is sanctioned by religion, and demonstrates something of an allergy to the concept of respect for orthodox belief (but heterodoxy – that’s quite another matter). The message is clear: in this model of the liberal society, Christian belief is still permitted (by whom?) but it must remain shut-up in its own (preferably sound-proof) box. It must not be permitted to hold equal standing within the free marketplace of ideas, which can therefore proliferate without any kind of balancing emphasis.

That such an approach is actually, fundamentally, illiberal does not require an especially penetrating mind to see – and yet one encounters variants of it everywhere. The BBC maintains a J. S. Mill model by segregating ‘religious’ broadcasting, so that we might all be very clear that this is something other than ‘normal’ life and culture. Conversely, other, questionable ideologies are given almost limitless airtime, and benefit from a kind of institutional presumption in their favour. Our education system teaches Darwinian Evolution as ‘science’ whilst scrupulously avoiding any kind of historical or cultural insight which might hint at its religious underpinnings. If, as a Christian, one seeks to attempt a public comment about culture, any such perspective is now routinely critiqued from a (usually leftwing) political perspective, as if there is no other permissible frame of reference. And well-meaning Christians, attempting to make sense of the profound dysfunctionalities which dominate Western society, find themselves resorting to the kinds of terminology and aphorisms which one would expect from a shop-steward, as if that were the only way to be heard. In fact, it seems evident that this is a sure-fire way to be tuned out – our most banal and ineffectual Archbishops of Canterbury have all, to a man, been cancelled by some influential Marxist Bishops within the Church of England. One ends up with a vacuous political polemic, garnished with sufficient Christianese to disguise the fatal absence of insight, in order to satisfy the market for religious complacency.

I was struck again, forcibly, today by how little truck Jesus Christ would have had with that kind of approach. The morning sermon was from Luke 13:1-5, where a bunch of agitators approach Jesus with a rumour of a Roman injustice perpetrated on innocent Galileans. This reportage is freighted with political overtones: Jesus is, after all, a Galilean, and the outrage on the part of those reporting the event demands a political response. In our present context, that is exactly how some Christians would respond: there’d be a petition decrying the Roman authorities action. FaceBook groups would proliferate (and they certainly wouldn’t fall foul of the ‘fact-checkers’), Italian exports would be boycotted, Amazon would start selling t-shirts with the slogan ‘Kill all Romans’ (after all, they were Republicans too), Christian activists would publicly protest about ‘Roman Intolerance’, burning the Italian flag, and distancing themselves from all things Roman. Pastors would preach sermons, extolling the beauty of Galilean identity. There would be ‘mostly peaceful’ marches which would result in Roman businesses and homes being torched, and anyone who didn’t publicly identify with all this would be outed as complicit with the Roman violence – and the whole cycle of division and hate would receive a fresh injection of pious impetus. Our choice of language and priorities can so easily make us accomplices to an even worse crime than the one that motivated our initial response.

Jesus has nothing to with any of that. Essentially his answer is far more radical: look at yourself, he says. That’s where change needs to happen first. And that is the basis for repentance.

For further reading:

Gertrude Himmelfarb – On Looking Into the Abyss

Graeme Smith – A Short History of Secularism

Jacques Barzun – Darwin, Marx, Wagner

Francis Schaeffer – Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

John M. Frame – A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

Roger Scruton – Where we are

Douglas Murray – The Madness of Crowds

Anthony Esolen – Out of the Ashes

Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind

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All memed out

Displayed above is just a representative selection of the memes which now dominate FaceBook. Picking these examples was far from a challenging exercise, because social media is not merely awash with this material, but it could be argued has been wholly overwhelmed by the tsunami of ad-hominems. The above items surfaced over the Christmas period, demonstrating that the ‘season of goodwill’ is a foreign concept to those possessed of a particular kind of ideology. One does not need to adopt an uncritical mien when it comes to the UK Government’s policies to have profound reservations about the kind of message being sent by those who manufacture these memes, and their accomplices who distribute them with a kind of unbridled enthusiasm.

(Incidentally, I accept that memes do not emanate from a single ideological source, and in this article I seek to argue that, irrespective of political bias, they are a far from healthy indicator of the state of our culture. Nevertheless, those that I collated were those that were in plentiful supply, whereas I struggled to locate examples that reflected the other end of the spectrum.)

My guess is that we might possibly engage with these memes differently, if they were accompanied by some kind of careful, rational argument that could be considered in a similar manner. But they are not. The meme has become the message. Those who delight in using them have effectively reduced the entire substance of civil discourse to the use of ad-hominems. Several in the above selection are specifically designed to impugn the moral integrity of others (BoJo and Daniel Hannan). Others are clearly intended to send the message that those Britons who voted for Brexit are simply too stupid to merit consideration. A number of others demonstrate an unquestioning loyalty to the motivations of EU bureaucrats, contrasted with the alleged childish, immature behaviours of British leaders, who could not possibly have any genuine rationale for their actions.

I have racked my brains, and cannot recall any class of politician who was so inviolably in the right, so as to justify portraying others in such a destructive, one-dimensional light. I am pretty sure that those who create these memes, and their acolytes who distribute them would struggle in a similar way. And given that they are clearly not unintelligent people, I suspect that they must know that – in which case the entire machinery for the origination and distribution of these memes is knowingly engaged in the character assassination of those it disagrees with. Nothing more.

From a Christian point of view, there are several points to be made. Firstly, if, as is clear, the promotion of ad-hominems has become a proxy for public discourse, then Christians should have nothing to do with it. Jesus models for us the character of good public discourse, and it is evident that he will have nothing to do with hearsay, nor does he suffer stereotypes gladly (indeed, he delights in subverting stereotypes). Even when he disagrees profoundly with certain individuals (teachers of the law come to mind), you find him pursuing a carefully-reasoned line of argument with them. It is only when his opponents resist rational discourse, that he pronounces judgement upon their stance – and one has to allow that the Son of God is reasonably placed to do so.

Secondly, the overarching purpose of these memes is to simply debase or degrade the status of a perceived opponent. This is exactly what anti-semites in the 19th and 20th centuries set out to do with their posters and cartoons aimed at the Jews. Some of those memes exhibited above attempt to pull off this feat not only with specific named individuals, but also with a sizeable chunk of the electorate. We are being told that there is a particular section of the population which is so stupid, so luddite, and so lacking in basic insights, that these deficiencies give the elite the right to talk down to them (take a look at the paper-clip meme). We should take great care here – our culture is not sufficiently aware of its own history to be immune to repeating past mistakes. Again, Christians cannot become parties to this kind of tactic – the dignity and rights of each individual human being is grounded in the Creation ordinance (Genesis 1:26), not in some arbitrary pronouncement from the UN or the EU. Clearly, those who take their marching orders from those secular humanistic initiatives have little problem in denying to others the rights and dignities that trip so lightly off the tongue, when it suits them.

Thirdly, Jesus teaches us that what we think about others, in our hearts, can be just as wicked as deeds done in the flesh. The ‘judge not lest you be judged’ commandment in Matthew 6 is not an encouragement to abandon critical thinking and rational evaluations of truth and falsehood – but rather a warning that we are not morally better than others around us. In Matthew 5, Jesus draws the direct line between an angry and critical attitude sustained towards others, and the act of murder. It seems reasonable to apply that kind of teaching to the circulation of memes which are clearly intended to damage another person. The nature of a transformed Christian outlook prohibits the kind of copycat hate-crimes embodied in these memes.

Within Western secular culture, over the last couple of decades, there has been a gathering trend towards attacking the individual, rather than ideas. ‘Cancel culture’ deals with an inconvenient perspective by attacking a person’s integrity or reputation, encouraging colleagues and acquaintances to shun the dissident, and ultimately to plot their economic destruction. This is happening too frequently, and in too widespread contexts to merely be a kind of unfortunate anomaly. We can conclude that there is an intentionality here, the same kind of intentionality which lies behind the issuance of these toxic memes. It goes without saying that the Christian community can and should have nothing to do with this kind of phenomenon. Clearly, we are not to be passive and compliant consumers of culture – you only need to look at examples such as William Wilberforce, Dr. Martin Luther King and Dame Cicely Saunders to realise that. As we move into 2021, our culture needs Christians who will speak truthfully, prophetically and lovingly, rather than those who will get sucked into this kind of nihilism.

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Ideology and the dismissal of history

℅ Chris Madden and Don’t Divide Us

One of the many joys of historical research is that one gets to meet great minds that have somehow fallen through the cracks of popular history.  One such, for me, has been Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88), a profound German Enlightenment thinker with a propensity for dark and enigmatic writings.  In recent years, there has been a gentle flourishing of translations of his literary contributions (many remain untranslated from the German), and I have recently benefited enormously from John R. Betz’ After Enlightenment, the Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann (2012, Wiley-Blackwell).

Hamann’s is an unusual mind, given his context.  He turned from the sterility of continental Enlightenment to a robust, evangelical Christian faith – and in that turning became something of a focus for secular acquaintances who regarded his sincere faith as an affront to their values.  Through their influence, he was introduced to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the hope that the great philosopher would reclaim this errant Enlightenment heretic, but what actually emerged was an improbable friendship, one where Hamann certainly gave as good as he got.  Essentially, Hamann provided one of the best, and certainly one of the earliest, rebuttals to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and there is every reason to think that everything that Kant learned about the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), came to him through Hamann’s mediation.

Hamann enjoyed a fruitful intellectual collaboration with Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), and it turns out that his writings were a profound influence on Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), the Danish philosopher.  It is a mysterious thing to discover an individual who has simultaneously been so overlooked, and at the same time, so pivotal in the development of the more prominent European thinkers.  Hamann is, in microcosm, proof positive that those sweeping Enlightenment tropes are simply not an accurate reflection of reality.  Here is a man, intensely and consistently rational, and in every sense embodying the Lockean underpinnings of this worldview, who recognises the fundamental, presuppositional importance of faith, as the means of making sense of the world.  And it is something of a shock to see how immediately, and how clearly Hamann decoded Diderot’s Encyclopédie as a largely reductionist attempt to rewrite history on the basis of the new materialistic polemic.  Peter Gay, and others like him, wants us to see this period as a face-off between the ‘new paganism’ of Enlightenment thinking, and the ‘old superstitions’ of a Christian worldview, but that kind of simplistic, binary distinction is disproved in a moment when one considers the contributions of thinkers such as Hamann, or Jonathan Edwards (New England), or Isaac Watts (Britain), or John Witherspoon (Scotland and New Jersey).  Not only does one not have to make the choice, but Hamann takes exceptional glee in demonstrating that the new Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant are relentlessly plagiarising the Christian canon, in order to argue their point.  One is reminded of the present-day ‘Atheist Churches’ meeting in deconsecrated church buildings, and in a real sense aping the very thing that they disparage (during times when it was permissible to meet).

One of Hamann’s great contributions is the exploration of the significance of philology, and he describes himself in his writings as “a lover of the Word”.  Ultimately, that applies to his view of Scripture, but in a more mediate sense, you can see it work out in the very serious way in which Hamann treated the text on the page.  For example, he sees science as “a matter of hermeneutics, of interpretation” (Betz), and argues that all philosophy is necessarily grounded in a textual tradition.  Whereas the continental philosophes relentlessly continued their strategy of grinding language down into an essentially meaningless combinations of noises, the byproduct of an undirected, telos-free process, Hamann saw language as something far more profound, the means by which we reliably handle reality, and may have a degree of confidence that we are doing so.  Betz tells us that he had a particularly clear view of the way in which regulation, through the forcible imposition of its own ideological overlays, and aesthetic norms, has the effect of “depriving language of its primal power”.  In Hamann’s day, such an idea was radical and novel but with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it is prophetic:  the fruit of that kind of unrestrained secularism has seen the proliferation of regulation beyond the human capacity to comprehend it, coupled with the radicals’ hegemony over our language.  Last night, I was discussing with academic colleagues the wisdom of using acronyms such as ‘BAME’, coined (fairly recently) by proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT).  The new, politically-correct acronym promulgated this week, is swiftly succeeded by the next iteration, and woe to the luddite who has the misfortune to use last week’s version.  In this secular-sanctioned chaos, where accepted words and concepts are sucked into the maelstrom, violently centrifuged, and spat out of some ideological orifice, language itself has become weaponised against the unwary user.  It has been adroitly converted into a tool of oppression, and it is being used with brutal force within our higher education system, the media, and other key loci of influence by those occupying an arguably extreme position on the political spectrum.  The Free Speech Union, inaugurated early this year, is working flat out to defend individuals (many academics) who were either simply doing their job, or articulating blindingly obvious points of historical or scientific fact.  Generally, it has been found that the CRT activists have been acting outside of the parameters of the law, as they seek to attack dissenting voices, demonstrating that this is as much of a power game as has been the redefinition of language.

The modern, value-free, evolutionary view of history carries with it an implicitly patronising and dismissive view of the past, especially when elements of that past are inconvenient for the new, polarised view of reality.  The Medieval period, a time of huge cultural and scientific advance is invariably dismissed as the ‘dark ages’, and prophetic individuals such as Johann Georg Hamann are systematically ignored because they do not fit the ideologically-simplified version of history, where the dogmatic presupposition appears to be that Christian belief cannot possibly be enlightening.

And a cowed, submissive and often highly-paganised ‘church’ is letting them get away with it. A smattering of Luthers, Calvins or Knoxs would be helpful, right now.

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The secularist type-casting of Christianity

At the time of writing, in Lockdown Wales, this graphic forms part of the Welsh Government’s attempt to convey to the populace what is permissible, and what is not.

There is a danger of simply reading too much ironical content into this, and it is (of course) possible that our revered leaders have actually not considered the implications of their own graphic. However, it is difficult to simply apply the old “Nothing to see here, folks, just walk on” mantra, which the secularists now appear to expect of Christian people, as a default response to each and every curtailment of historic freedoms. Three initial observations come to mind…

Firstly, the perhaps simple point that the politicians consider ‘places of worship’ an obvious target for closure during a crisis of this kind, when it should be clear to any sentient being that the nature of the suffering and emotional trauma experienced by the population is as much a spiritual issue as it is a clinical one. The despair of seriously sick patients who know they’re not going to get treated because of COVID. The separation of families and friends. The deep existential angst of millions battling against a government-induced sense of futility and disempowerment.

Secondly, the fact that ‘places of worship’ are placed last in a list which opens with ‘hair and beauty salons’. There’s no alphabetical sorting of categories applied here. It is as if the designers of the graphic have asked themselves, ‘What else can I add? What other, utterly insignificant venue haven’t I already covered? Oh yes, those places.’ This is a graphic which tells you something about the values at the heart of (Welsh) government.

Thirdly, there is the footnoted sop ‘**Open for wedding vows and funerals’, which really does highlight the secularist’s fond notion that places of worship are essentially empty buildings that only become relevant when they cater in some way for rites which overlap the civil space. It is difficult to speak in a universal sense of all places of worship, but when I consider my own, in central Cardiff, the phrase ‘all life is here’ seems the most appropriate descriptor. A community resource, open seven days a week, where ‘weddings and funerals’ form a very tiny proportion of all the social good that results.

Christian churches should clearly be in the green box, because they:

  • not only provide physical food and other provisions to the homeless, but they also supply essential and nutritious spiritual food to those who understand their fundamental need as persons, created in the image of God;
  • communicate the latest news about the exciting progress of Christianity around the world, and the profound areas of need which require our focus;
  • are able to effectively treat the spiritual malaise afflicting our hollowed-out culture;
  • provide financial and other support to those in greatest need (Christians Against Poverty comes to mind);
  • facilitate good communication, free exchange of ideas and means of mutual support, all via one central location;
  • provide a free supply of high-octane spiritual fuel to keep a whole multitude of essential charitable initiatives on the road;
  • deliver high-quality, free education available for all ages;
  • support the widest range of healthcare professionals in their work, whilst minimising risk to the vulnerable;
  • facilitate all kinds of support for those in our community who need it (shopping, decorating, car repairs, clothes-washing, to name but a few).

All these functions very clearly are characteristics of those permitted entities which appear in the green box (above). For our secular government to be placing Christian churches in the red box, is an indication that they no longer understand the culture that they purport to govern.


For the record, and at the time of writing, our own church, one of the largest, and fastest-growing churches in Wales, has applied meticulous COVID-protection standards, and have no evidence of community transfer. This is entirely consistent with what hundreds of other churches have reported.

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Human flourishing and religious liberty

This is the abbreviated title of a paper, published by Christos Andreas Makridis in November 2019. The original adds the explanatory strapline, Evidence from Over 150 Countries, 2006-2018, and those additional words are important, because they tell you that Dr. Makridis has worked very carefully indeed, on a huge body of data, in order to determine if the concept of religious liberty is actually causal in relation to ‘human flourishing’, or whether it is merely incidentally correlated. This matters because the operational space for religious liberty is globally under attack, albeit especially in the West.

The bulk of this paper comprises a commentary on what has clearly been a most rigorous piece of statistical analysis, as evidenced by the analytical tables and charts supplied at the rear. Makridis recognises that the paucity of existing literature on the topic does not aid in providing any short-cuts when it comes to the analysis, and he is keen to assess multiple explanations for the correspondence between religious liberty and human flourishing. That there is a correlation is clear from the data, so what Makridis was keen to investigate was the causal relationship.

The conclusions from his analysis are compelling, as indicated by the following statements:

“the results are primarily consistent with the first mechanism: increases in religious liberty affect well-being through its effects on democratic governance and freedom.”

“…finding that increases in religious liberty lead to increases in human flourishing, this paper proved new and plausibly causal microeconomic evidence consistent with the supply-side view that religious participation and well-being thrive under pluralism.”

“… religious freedom is positively associated with almost all of the pillars of global competitiveness in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.”

As Makridis moves deeper into his analysis, he concludes that,

“These results suggest that countries with greater exposure to missionaries (either Protestant or Catholic) prior to 1923 have greater contemporaneous levels of religious liberty.” He then qualifies this general position by referencing Woodberry (2012) to conclude that “conversionary Protestants… had a unique role in spreading mass education, printing, civil society, and other factors that scholars argue fostered democracy.” and “These findings build on a larger literature linking Protestantism and modern representative democracy.”

In short, Makridis demonstrates robustly that religious liberty is the driver for the recognised measures of human flourishing that most authorities recognise. For practicing Christians this is hardly a revelation, but it is a perspective which is sharply at odds with the kinds of mantras that are repeated ad nauseam within the secular West. And why this is important is because, according to the most recent assessments, religious liberty is in stark decline, especially in the West. Between 2006-2018, the measure for Denmark declined by 55.6%, France by 38.9%, the USA by 35.1% and the UK by 24.9%.

Ever since the end of the 18th Century, the more extreme proponents of Enlightenment thinking have laid claim to democracy as their own project. Indeed, this kind of assertion is rattled off with aplomb in so many contexts that few, if any, question its veracity. However, Makridis concludes (referencing a panoply of scholarship supporting the position) that “…religious factors are important determinants for the emergence and continuity of democracy in Europe and North America… Although some argue that democracy was developed purely through Enlightenment ideas, countries that developed democracies purely on the basis of Enlightenment ideals were generally not stable… and/or consisted only of elites.” He concludes that, “Similarly, the rise of religious movements, particularly conversionary Protestants, created the demand that led to newspapers and print media… A related way religious pluralism could be linked with improvements in well-being is through its effects on educational attainment.” He supports this by contrasting the belief of Christian thinkers with that of the secular elites in the 19th Century, showing that “…the basis of religious liberty is the belief that each individual has the option and responsibility of pursuing truth and becoming educated on their terms, rather than by force.” He observes, en passant, that “…many of the nonviolent tactics for social reform, such as boycotts and mass petitions, were piloted by religious organisations.” It is hardly controversial to observe that, correlating with the accelerating secularisation of our culture, protests have become increasingly violent, shrill and divisive, and demonstrate unaccountable and destructive behaviours in relation to private property as well as community infrastructure.

This is a useful contribution. For Christians who have been active in education, medicine, local government, social enterprise and the law, none of this is rocket-science – but it is significant that academic research emanating from the MIT Sloan School of Management apparently recognises the fact, given the empty rhetoric of contemporary secularists. Makridis closes by taking us back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, wherein the author “argued that religious liberty in America would be fundamental to its democratic governance and preservation of peace and stability, balancing the competing demands for materialism and religious fanaticism.”

Postscript: So what actually is religious liberty?

Some early responses to this post are in fact suggestive that, for many inhabiting a secular worldview, the whole concept of ‘religious liberty’ is an alien one. One comment spoke of “… confusing religious liberty with being religious…” which was intriguingly ambiguous. Certainly, Chinese Christians languishing in detention camps are not experiencing ‘religious liberty’, whilst they are, on one level at least, very definitely in that position because they are ‘being religious’. So, that is not a workable equation at all. Another comment hilariously stated “Religious liberty = the freedom to foist your religious beliefs and practices on those who don’t want it”, representing a view of the place of religion in the West which must be nearly a century out of date, if, indeed it ever did reflect the experience of the majority in the West. It requires a systematic attention to eradicating public knowledge for such ideas to be expressed by intelligent individuals, since, historically, we have learned the lesson the hard way. Here, again, is Makridis’ comment (quoting Kidd): “…the Founding Fathers, not only did not distinguish between civil and religious liberty, but also viewed religious liberty as humanity’s most fundamental form of freedom.”

There are, of course, accessible resources out there which, whilst somewhat basic in scope, provide sufficient insight on this topic. The CAB has a page on the subject. So does the Equality & Human Rights Commission. One minor weakness of some of these types of resources is that they erroneously imply that the ‘freedom of religion’ which Christians bleat on and on about, was actually a generous gift to religious people from wise, tolerant secularists – like giving one’s toddlers their own ballpark to play in. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) is regarded in many spheres as the charter document for this subject, and it predates all that Enlightenment secularisation malarkey by a significant margin. But even Locke isn’t working at the coalface – many scholars have traced the historic formulation of religious (and civic) liberty back to the Reformation, especially to the Puritans. There were notable contributions by John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, and the English Baptists during the reign of James I – and they were appealing to Augustine, Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom – the Church Fathers.

I suspect that when modern secularists use the phrase ‘religious liberty’, what they actually mean in practice is the liberty of the ghetto, the freedom to ‘practice’ one’s religion but in a way that is utterly invisible to the surrounding culture. Recently, a senior lawyer in regional government, someone who is known as a Christian, was told by a roomful of secular colleagues, “If we had our way, people like you wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the extent of the new tolerance, and yet even a fleeting review of our history would demonstrate that this could not possibly be a viable model for religious freedom. Invisible, ghettoised Christians would not have ended slavery in the UK, but Wilberforce did. We have palliative care because Dame Cicely Saunders, motivated by a robust Christian view of the patient, fought against the medical establishment. You could repeat exactly the same pattern across innumerable areas – it is the visibility of the Christian faith, and the preparedness of Christ’s followers to articulate truth which has made the difference.

For further reading…

Francis J. Beckwith – Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith. Cambridge University Press.

John Witte, Jr & Frank S. Alexander (eds) – Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Allen D. Hertzke & Timothy Allen Shah (eds) – Christianity and Freedom (Vols 1 & 2). Cambridge University Press.

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More contagious than Coronavirus

Since late February, our lives have been dominated by Coronavirus.  The news about, and the implications of, the pandemic have been relentless and overwhelming.  It has been almost impossible to consider any single aspect of human society which has not been overridden, overshadowed or otherwise subsumed by the virus itself, and the politicisation of its significance.  We have lived our entire existence for a period of seven months under lockdown – but the same may not be said of Critical Theory and its vocal proponents within the social justice movement.  Somehow, at least judging by the sheer volume of word documents, powerpoint presentations, and cleverly pre-digested resources being flung at tired and stressed teachers, Critical Theory is taking the education sector by storm.  Anyone who has studied this topic in any depth will know that this form of epistemological reinvention effectively locksdown dissent.  Even the more liberal defenders of it (such as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff) accept that it can have that kind of effect in practice.  And, of course, in the present climate that’s exactly how it is used.

There is a reason why certain ideologues are called ‘activists’.  The clue is in the word, and my guess is that most ordinary parents may be wholly unaware of the extent to which the education system is becoming saturated with this kind of ideology.  Some therefore may have been shocked by Channel 4’s perturbing documentary about the intentional introduction of racial divisions into a school, in the name of ending racism.  It was horrifying to see the damage being inflicted upon a delightful group of youngsters, for whom race simply wasn’t an issue, in order to inflict racial polarisation upon them.  As is now de rigeur in these programmes, highly questionable presuppositions were presented as if they were established fact.  The teachers smiled benignly as the children experienced waves of confusion and hurt during the ‘experiment’, and the fault lines along racial divisions began to appear.  At several points in the documentary, it became clear that the children’s worldview was being systematically manipulated, in order to manufacture resentment established along racial lines.

Thankfully, there has been some kind of pushback.  There is an excellent piece of analysis published by Don’t Divide Us which is certainly worth reading.  But in the meantime, many of the public are reading this kind of polemic in The Guardian, designed to soften up the unwary.  It’s worth taking a look at that article, in order to see what the author is up to, about which I have the following comments to make:

  • There’s no evidence of even a hint of a questioning attitude towards the BLM movement, although this may perhaps be a function of the media’s tendency to accept certain things at face value whilst never allowing others even a millimetre of wiggle-room;
  • We’re told that Michael Gove’s views were ‘extreme’, but we’re never told what they were and why they might be so regarded.  The authors (three of them cooperated on this puff piece!) might be right, but I would expect a statement like that to be supported with some kind of justification.  Perhaps the mere use of Gove’s name has become a proxy for a kind of ad hominem?
  • There is an underlying assumption that there is ‘a thing’ which may be described as ‘Black History’, which stands as a separate entity to ‘History’ as an academic topic, because the latter has been insufficiently permeated by the tenets of critical theory.  It is not at all clear from the article whether the teaching of ‘Black History’ involves singling out black contributors to British history, or tackling the challenging topic of Empire, or simply extending the field of historical study outside of Europe, or just reading 21st Century concepts of diversity and inclusiveness back into the past.  It would seem preferable to teach children more history within the curriculum – one of my pet interests is the history of science, where the neglect has been so profound as to facilitate the key tenets of the new atheism which rest on thin air, because children are not taught the contingency of ideas and concepts.  But slicing and dicing historical analysis based on skin-colour seems designed for one purpose only;
  • There is one exceptionally crass moment in the article, where authorial intention becomes obvious – here David Olusoga’s identification of black people performing normal jobs in England from the Tudor period onwards is immediately contrasted with white British roles in Africa which – yes you’ve guessed it – boil down solely to participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and to ‘occupying’.  Now that is an especially nasty piece of reductionism.  At least you know what you’re getting from The Guardian;
  • There’s a reference to the horrendous phenomenon of Human Zoos, where denizens from Somalia and other African states were displayed for public entertainment in ‘zoos’.  The article skates over the background to this, but given its overall focus, it is quite natural to assume that we are expected to get the message that this was yet another abuse of colonialism.  Not a bit of it.  The human zoos were a direct product of Darwinian evolutionary theory, where the humans being exhibited were intended to demonstrate a lower level of evolution in support of the new religion of naturalism. One famous example was the pigmy, Ota Benga, who was displayed alongside an orangutan in the Monkey House at Bronx Zoo – there was a pronounced absence of subtlety when it came to making the Darwinian point.  It seems that certain kinds of ideology cannot help but brutalise everyone they come into contact with;
  • And I find it a little hard to believe that David Olusoga would adopt such a simplistic stance, but the article presents as his belief that “the erasure of black history in Britain is an intentional feature of racism that he traces to Enoch Powell, whose search for a pre-colonial white England discards 400 years of British history and skips back to before the Elizabethans.”  Just think about that one for a moment:  Enoch Powell died 22 years ago, in 1998.  He actually gave his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in April 1968, some 52 years ago.  The speech was so unhelpfully OTT that it effectively ended his political aspirations, the entire country was embarrassed by it, and, with the exception of a tiny number of extremists whom the rest of the population would unequivocally revile, we’ve all of us headed resolutely in the opposite direction ever since.  This is the kind of notion which could only exist in the artificial atmosphere supplied by The Guardian, one starved of the oxygen of enlightenment.

And there’s plenty more there which is just as bad, but I cannot resist drawing attention to this final, choice gem, from Claire Broomfield (Villiers High School, Southall).  Here it is:

So it is also important, according to Clare Broomfield, the head of history at Villiers high school in Southall, Middlesex, for pupils to learn about different cultures before colonisation. “Studying the Mughal empire or the Benin kingdom moves away from the narrative that people of colour and black people are seen only as slaves or victims,” she says.

Here we have one of those classic ideology-trumping-facts moments, which anyone with access to a decent library could deal with.  Let’s look at the Mughal empire, prior to colonisation, she says – and by that, presumably, we mean, prior to toxic white British colonisation.  Well, fine, be that as it may.  This period (the one before the arrival of the Brits) tells a narrative of people who aren’t only seen as slaves and victims. according to Ms Broomfield.

Except, of course, that’s just baloney.  And, as my old theology prof used to tell us, “Thinly sliced baloney is still baloney”.  The Mughal empire was to a very great extent about slavery.  The Mughals actively traded their slaves with both the Turkish Ottoman and Iranian Safavid empires, and black slaves from Africa had a particular designation – the ‘Zanj’.  Slavery was, in fact, integral to the entire history of Islam – after all, what did you do with the residue of a people after you had butchered the men of fighting age?  (Don’t take my word for it: the Indian historian, K. S. Lal, has done the number-crunching.  Between 1000 and 1525, Lal’s estimate is that the Muslim invaders killed approximately 80 million people in India alone). All the Mughal emperors were, if nothing else, committed exponents of the art of Jihad, where surviving women and children were treated as booty.  Yes, they did some splendid things as well – and we shouldn’t attempt to reduce that entire period to nothing other than oppression, because that would be a bit like what the BLM are trying to do, wouldn’t it?

When people teach history, one hopes that they’ll reach for a few reliable reference books to influence the granular content of the syllabus.  What we are observing here is the development of an approach towards the syllabus that is primarily driven by ideology.  Our children deserve better than this.  Heck, Guardian readers deserve better than this.

Get aware!  Some useful resources:

Christian Alejandro Gonzales writes on The Illiberal Logic of Intersectionality

James Lindsay explains how critical theorists have redefined epistemology so as to render accepted models of intellectual engagement and discourse obsolete, in No, the Woke Won’t Debate You.  Here’s Why.

And here’s the brand new barnstormer, hot off the press from Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – And Why this Harms Everybody.

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Academic freedom and religious freedom are connected

Earlier this month, I wrote a short piece about the toxic impact of ‘cancel culture’, especially as it is impacting upon higher education.  It is worth noting that the introduction of reductionist ideologies within the secondary school system means that we are churning out undergraduates who are ill-equipped to cope with the free intellectual environment that hitherto characterised our Universities.  Analogically,  ‘Foot-binding‘ was a historical and disfiguring practice conducted in China, only finally abolished in the early 20th century: its victims were no longer able to walk naturally and freely.  It is quite likely that the shackles of reductionism may have a similarly constraining impact upon intellectual development, but labelling academic freedom as the ‘problem’ misses the point by a wide mile.  Academic freedom can only be a ‘problem’ to students who are suffering from a societally-induced pathology, disabling the exercise of critical faculties, and subverting the capacity to tolerate opinions other than their own.

Of course, those who have the greatest interest in fostering or supporting cancel culture are the same people most likely to deny that it exists.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago documents the painstaking lengths to which the Soviet authorities went in order to ‘pretend’ that, either the Gulags did not exist, or, if they did, that they were paradises on earth.  I have been grateful, therefore, to lay my hands on a full copy of the Policy Exchange‘s latest compendious report, Academic Freedom in the UK, Protecting Viewpoint Diversity.  Whilst the quality of this analysis is much to be welcomed, it does serve to underscore the harrowing state of play within the UK, where academics who are unable to endorse increasingly bizarre ideologies find themselves an intimidated minority.  There is now “widespread support for discrimination on political grounds in publication, hiring and promotion”, which, if followed consistently as a strategy, would effectively complete the transformation of our Universities as hotbeds of Marxist ideology.  The data persuasively documents the climate of hostility aimed towards those whose beliefs do not fall on the left side of the great divide, and (as a result) a greater propensity for those with dissenting (right-wing) opinions to self-censor.

Not everything is quite so one-sided, though.  The report shows that, when it comes to career progression, grant applications and discrimination, individual academics on both the right and left tend to discriminate – which, given our focus on academic freedom, is far from desirable.  Nevertheless, given the nature of the numbers involved, anyone not on the left side of the political divide, falls into an endangered minority, and there are clear implications for collegiality as a result.

Of course it would be naïve to suggest that a mere commitment to academic freedom is a kind of universal panicea for the ills that currently beset us.  George M. Marsden, in his forensic analysis, The Soul of the American University, points out that the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) did little to protect academic staff who were being censored and dismissed during the McCarthyite era, despite an apparently high view of academic freedom.  And there were very distinctively anti-religious exemplars of this commitment, such as the American Academic Freedom Project (Columbia University) whose Director (Robert M. McIver) fostered the caricature that religious belief “tended to imprison the inquiring mind”.  His colleagues, Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger were both prominent critics of religious conservativism, and contributed towards a prevailing academic culture which, in practice, treated religious considerations as matters which automatically fell outside of a reputable academic purview.

Of course, the kinds of ‘inquiring minds’ which McIver wished to protect would actually have included many of our greatest thinkers, such as Augustine, Maimonides, Averröes, Aquinas, Dante, Luther, Calvin, Milton, Pascal, Edwards and Newman (to name just those listed by Marsden) – individuals whose contributions to intellectual culture were hardly hampered by their strong religious convictions.  One is left wondering if these well-meaning secularists so thoroughly denatured the credentials of academic freedom, that the residue proved inadequate to resist the onslaught from cultural Marxism.  Anybody who has read Jonathan Edwards to a reasonable extent will discover a mind which, in its breadth and depth, went far, far beyond the limited conceptions of those who impose such a thin and inadequate reductionism on us, slicing and dicing academic disciplines so that they are more easily picked off by the extremists.

Douglas Wilson, in an essay published within With Calvin in the Theatre of God, is speaking of just one of the examples listed above, when he says:

We tend to compartmentalise things in fragmented ways, and this was something Calvin refused to do.  He was an integrated thinker, and in this he represented the history of the church well.  The university is a Christian idea – where does the uni come from?  Christ is the arche, the integration point of all things (Col. 1: 17-18).  But we, in our disobedience, have become fragmented thinkers.  The universe is a Christian concept, as is the university.  But knowledge is now fragmented, like Humpty Dumpty, and our students now attend multiversities, with nothing to tie the knowledge all together.  And because of this, our multiversities have become travaversities.

Academic freedom is vital to our culture.  It is disappointing to encounter advocates of it, simultaneously deprecating religious freedom, as history demonstrates that you cannot have the one without the other.

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The ubiquity of cancel culture

‘Cancel Culture’ may not be new, but it’s suddenly gone mainstream.  Perhaps it’s a secondary symptom of the COVID-19 virus.

It seems that those who are doing the ‘cancelling’ are keen that our awareness of what is going on needs drastically paring back.  Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist, has written at quite some length, in order to document his own experience at the hands of the mobs who seem to control social media.  The irony here is that scientists who are Christians have, for many years, found themselves ‘cancelled’ (or existed under the threat thereof) for any public dissent from the presuppositional naturalism which has been used to weaponise the biological sciences against the very (theistic) worldview which gave rise to them.  Suddenly, those of atheistic or agnostic persuasion, are discovering that this toxic ideology has quietly morphed into something that is far more dangerous to Western intellectual culture, and has the capacity to bring the whole house of cards down.

Well, evolution’s a bit like that.

Of course the intellectual viability of the scientific project was always wholly dependent on its theistic foundations.  To mix my metaphors;  since Darwin, the root has not merely been cut, it’s been systematically written out of the epistemology of science, as if the fruit itself is a healthy, independent organ, disconnected from its source of vitality.  What one ends up with is a mishmash of unrelated disciplines, each with their own ‘truth’, each competing for dominance because there is no longer any sense of a grand, overarching source of objective truth.  For more years than I can recall, various forms of Darwinism have sought to assume the dominant position, even seeking to impose their implausible metrics on music and the arts, but as anyone might have predicted, we have passed that point.  The dominant driver behind cancel culture is not in any sense ‘scientific’, it is instead a very tightly-focused subjectivism, imposed by the vociferous few upon the passive majority.  Peer-reviewed papers are removed from journals, not because they are unscientific, or because they lack rigour, but because they offend the self-appointed guardians of subjectivism.  Reputable academics lose tenure because their colour is wrong, or they have failed to nuance the latest PC semantics, or because their research is ideologically inconvenient.  Complete garbage gets past the censors, not because it represents reality, but rather because it ticks the boxes favoured by the ideologues.  We know this because of the outrageous experiment conducted by James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian in 2018, which exposed the current sham in all of its sordid self-interest.  Thank goodness for the integrity and courage of some – but these people tend to be the target of cancel culture.  Jonathan Haidt, whilst not sharing my Christian beliefs, documents with great care the cull of dissident academics in the USA, within his excellent text, The Coddling of the American Mind.  Douglas Murray, occupying a different political space, provides a similarly forensic documentation of the same harrowing phenomenon in The Madness of Crowds.  Both ought to be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the sudden convulsion of our culture, and whilst neither author is writing from a Christian perspective, any biblical Christian would recognise the accuracy of the diagnosis outlined in these texts.

And so, the process continues unabated.  We reduce truth into aphorisms which may be commoditised. We dissect into ever smaller components.  We divide.  We ‘cancel’.  We use whatever rhetorical tool comes to hand for the purpose – gender and race being merely the latest instances – anything that helps the definition of subjectivised realities that may be employed to degrade community, and engineer new hierarchies.  The death of God within a relentlessly secularised culture makes all of this not only possible, but inevitable.  Nietzsche understood this.  Dostoevsky did.  So did G. K. Chesterton.  It is no surprise that BLM activists (in Portland, OR) are burning Bibles as well as buildings, as the ‘land of the free’ was built (imperfectly) upon the principles enshrined within Scripture – not least, the unique dignity and essential equality of all human beings, created in the image of God.

What we are seeing on our streets, in the academy, promulgated through the partisan ephemerata of social media, and running rife through our institutions is proof positive of their analysis.  The Visigoths are at the door.

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Coming out of COVID?


Like most organisations, the implications of some kind of post-COVID-19 reboot for a charity I support are enormous.  Running a visitor centre, where people have the temerity to move about, requires immensely detailed precautionary measures.  Visitors have the right to feel safe, but so do our staff, and therefore how does one introduce sufficient structure and control to limit undesirable social contact, when the whole point of the exercise is to welcome people and interact positively, constructively with them?  That’s not going to happen whilst wearing hazmat suits, or by steadfastly hiding behind polycarbonate screens, or by spraying anti-viral agents on anything that has a pulse.

And so, we plan, we plan… The precise content of new instructional signage.  The location of the automatic hand-sanitiser dispenser.  The types of masks to be stocked, and who gets to wear them.  How we get people in and out of the Visitor Centre through the same door, whilst at the same time minimising contact.  How we manage movement around an open, round, internal space.  How we deploy new signage or barriers without at the same time completely vandalising the unique experience of visiting one of the only four medieval churches still in use in England.  For the whole point of a Visitor Centre, is that it welcomes its visitors – and, in our case, provides a unique point of access to the Christian basis for Cambridge’s academic success, as well as the multiplicity of cultural phenomena which flow directly out of Christian theology.

It all would be a whole lot easier if we lived in the nice, simple, compartmentalised world that the Enlightenment secularists assumed, where the universe could be represented by an orrery, and where crowds could gasp and be amazed by clockwork automatons dressed up to look like real people or animals.  It was this kind of reductionist worldview which allowed Darwin the freedom to publish his Origin of Species, for, after all, the ‘simple cell’ was just an unsophisticated piece of matter, a mere protoplasmic blob, something that could quite easily happen all on its own, in this strange, degraded world where one could simply presume the this-then-that linear interactions of Newtonian particles.  Gosh, life was simple then!  In that kind of world, one driven by the mandate of Enlightenment Utopianism, all we needed to do was wind the clockwork, just right, and…Bob’s your Aunty, you could control everything.  Especially the people – early Darwinists had a peculiar fascination for eugenics, and, judging by the antics of Planned Parenthood et al, the later ones have continued to drink deeply from the Kool Aid.

But then we discovered DNA and RNA, and realised that life is all about specified information – and that’s not the kind of thing that easily stays locked away in Pandora’s Box, having an impetus all of its own, as the Twitterati have found out to their cost.  Information is powerful stuff, as it logically precedes the very life-forms which depend upon it.  Then, whilst we were discovering that ‘junk’ DNA actually wasn’t junk at all, we were also learning that something way beyond DNA (the Epigenome) profoundly influences biological outcomes.  And let’s not get started on Quantum Physics…

You can’t turn the clock back.  We cannot unlearn what we have learned.  The COVID-19 strain isn’t one which confines itself to the somewhat limited expectations of Enlightenment materialists.  The orgy of public virtue-signalling on our streets may suggest that all of that noise and sweaty iconoclasm should have intimidated the virus into complying with our own utopian rules, but in our honest moments, we know that’s not true.  The Deists of old were as wrong about the mechanisms of life as the materialists are now, and the (Holy) ghost in the machine is there to remind us, at all times, of how little real control we actually have.  If there are levers on the machine of climate-change, it seems unlikely that these are manipulable by the kinds of bureaucrats who pad their expense accounts in Brussels, or by the politicians who pose for group photographs at the G7, or indeed by those who delight in loudly proclaiming their environmental credentials whilst filling their homes and pockets with products that literally cost the earth.

Hopefully, that may keep us functionally humble, but in the meantime we’re still going to take responsible precautions when we reopen the Round Church to the public.

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If I had a hammer…


By Carl Frederik von Breda – Carl Frederik von Breda, Public Domain,

There is a statue of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) set into the walls of St. John’s College, Cambridge.  Clarkson, the anti-slavery activist, whose ‘History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (published 1808) became the textbook associated with the abolitionist agenda, worked tirelessly with William Wilberforce (1759-1833) to bring about change.  He and his movement were successful in 1807 in getting a bill passed in the British Parliament to outlaw slavery, but Wilberforce continued to labour until the year of his death in order to see the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) passed, giving freedom to existing slaves.

There are, in fact, a number of memorials to Thomas Clarkson, who did so much to end this egregious and inhumane practice.  There is the much, much grander edifice in Wisbech, his home town.  There’s the more modest monument on the A10, near to Thundridge in Hertfordshire, marking the spot where Clarkson dedicated himself to the eradication of slavery.  There’s a green slate memorial to him in Westminster Abbey, and a painting by Carl Fredrik von Breda in the National Portrait Gallery.

Clarkson is an essential figure in the abolitionist narrative, and it seems that whilst the whole issue is rampaging across our screens again, the story being presented doesn’t include people like him.  The fact is that the leading global movement against slavery, International Justice Mission (IJM), is a Christian one, owing its origins to the Rwandan genocide (1994).  The scope of IJM’s work has significantly expanded since its inception, and just because Christians are not all demonstrating on the streets, doesn’t mean that they’re doing nothing about slavery and racial injustice, contrary to the kinds of mantra one sees routinely displayed on banners, and the vitriol poured out on the non-compliant.

And ‘rage’ seems to be the defining feature of the current climate.  One does not find those Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters peacefully showing appreciation for those, like Clarkson, who went before them, and did the hard graft in a culture which ridiculed and marginalised evangelical Christians such as Wilberforce.  Indeed, there is not even a reference to such trailblazers on their website.  No, they were busy doing things like torching the church in Washington, the one that President Trump posed awkwardly in front of, holding a Bible. And, here they were, more recently, toppling a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) in Bristol, because of his association with The Royal African Company (RAC), whose trading interests featured, amongst other things, slavery on a grand scale.  This is what appears to have drawn the ire of the protestors, although it is difficult to see why Colston forms such a focus, other than perhaps ease of access.  Primary investors in the RAC included Charles II, John Locke the philosopher, Samuel Pepys, and many others of significant repute – so there is an almost limitless potential for statue-toppling, portrait-defacing, book-burning, de-platforming of philosophy academics and any other permutation of cultural vandalism which might occur to such activists.  The end product of this kind of process is a desolate land comprising bland, anodyne shopping malls, a population with no collective awareness of where they came from, and consequently with no perspective capable of framing their vision for the future.

Which does raise the rather obvious question, doesn’t it?  Who knows just how complicit Edward Colston was in the slave trade?  There is literally nothing to be learned from the public utterances of BLM sympathisers on that point, which take the form of the usual generalised expressions of outrage.  The more objective material on the interweb is clearly suggestive of the nature of the problem here –  but is Colston’s association with slavery the defining feature of the man’s life?  Presumably, a bunch of Bristolians didn’t think it would be a cunning wheeze to erect a statue of the man in order to celebrate slavery?  After all, it was put up in 1895, some 62 years after Wilberforce’s work came to fruition.  It’s likely that there were other, slightly more redeeming features to his life (his notable philanthropy, for instance) which provided the catalyst.  And, if we’re going to trawl back through our history to find culprits, why wouldn’t we apply a similar diligence to the discovery and praise of those, like Clarkson and Wilberforce, who literally gave their lives to the freedom of black people?

Of course, that’s not going to happen.  Partly because this is a collective exercise with only the most tenuous connection with the kind of intellectual endeavour which would be a prerequisite for understanding such complex issues.  And partly, because the public demonstrations are primarily about the articulation of rage and loathing, directed outwardly at others, rather than by any real desire to understand ourselves.  Colston’s statue, with all its attendant and disconcerting complexities is about us, our own connections to, and collusions with, the kinds of sins that we would all wish to distance ourselves from:  you cannot just demolish the entire old city of Bristol which remains a permanent epitaph to the ‘triangular trade’ in slaves, although it is at least conceivable that this may be next on the radical agenda.  Toppling the image of a man who died three centuries ago is therefore a form of virtue-signalling which denies our own multifarious and utterly current complicities with the sweatshops in Bangladesh, the demand for child porn in the Philippines, the ongoing environmental catastrophe associated with smartphones and ‘green technology’, and our endless appetite for cheap products, fed by the slave-labour of the Uighurs (and others) in China.  Such public denunciations are just cheap palliatives to seared consciences, or a kind of displacement behaviour.

The western Atlantic slave-trade was a horrendous phenomenon, so huge in scope that it was not until 2015 that the UK finally paid off its liabilities in connection with the massive financial reparations that were made after 1833.  It’s not possible to consider such a period in history without a sense of profound shame and perplexity.  But white westerners were not the only culprits – Islamic slavers, operating out of Africa, continued to ply their trade until 1905 (some 72 years after the UK ended it), and reliable estimates of the extent of the trans-Saharan, Red Sea and Indian Ocean traffic suggest a scale of misery which exceeded the Western crime by at least 50%.  This clearly does not minimise Western culpability, but it is indicative of the highly manufactured nature of the outrage that is currently playing out on our streets.  If racism is wrong (and it is) and slavery is evil (which it is), why the fascination for desecrating Western cultural artefacts, rather than dealing directly with current sources of that evil?  Why the studious looking-the-other-way when it comes to other historic manifestations of this particular evil?  Clearly, the history of the thing matters to BLM activists, otherwise they wouldn’t be so exercised about dumping this piece of bronze into the harbour – so, if it matters, let’s study the history, otherwise the foment escalates into the kind of iconoclasm which would be so prejudicial to British culture.

One of the notable phenomena of the COVID-19 lockdown has been the fascination for the hymn, Amazing Grace.  Here’s the latest version by Judy Collins and the virtual choir, for instance.  The hymn-writer, in this instance, was John Newton (1725-1807), the notorious slave-trader whose life was utterly transformed when he found forgiveness in Christ – and you can see this not just in the words of his hymn, but in his extensive writings, and his indefatigable support for Wilberforce and his team.  Now, that’s the solution to racism, not the selective, targeted unpicking of our culture, to suit the mandate of a particular kind of ideology, where the possession of a hammer means that all one sees is nails.


For those who want to make a real difference by combatting slavery right now, why not consider making a donation to International Justice Mission.  If you do so prior to 21st June 2020, generous donors have agreed to double the value of your gift.


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