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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Has Christianity had its chips?
Christianity has been "almost vanquished" in the UK says the Archbishop of Westminster. What future is there for the faith? See our e-mail debate unfold throughout the day.

Our two e-mailers are:

Madeleine Pym
Madeleine Pym from the British Humanist Association, which aims to support and people who seek to live "good and responsible lives" without religious or superstitious beliefs. She is, she says, "editor of Humanist News, a keen beekeeper, and a human being".


Steve Tomkins
Steve Tomkins, a writer on church history and religious satire. He is also a commissioning editor for Ship of Fools, the internet magazine of Christian Unrest which recently organised a Ned Flanders look-a-like evening.

To: Steve Tomkins
Sent: 11.30am
Subject: It's not looking good for you

Dear Steve
I'm sure you'll have seen that the Archbishop of Westminster has said that Christianity is practically "vanquished" in the UK and that people are seeking the transient pleasures of sex, drugs, and consumerism, "new age" movements and 'green issues', instead of attending church. His complaint seems to be - at least in part - that we are more concerned with the "here and now" than with thoughts of eternity.

What could be more important than trying to improve the only world I shall ever know?

My first point is that he fails to grasp how deeply offensive this is to the great many non-believers, whether they be atheists or agnostics, who feel no need to experience faith, or have a belief in some transcendent being in order to have a strong sense of moral values and lead a meaningful life.

My question to you is, given that, as a humanist I am uncluttered by any concept of an "eternal hereafter" what could be more important than trying to improve the only world I shall ever know both for myself, my fellow humankind, and future generations?

I look forward to your reply,

Madeleine Pym

To: Madeleine Pym
Sent: 12.05pm
Subject: You've got a point, but...

Hi Madeleine [I'm Steve, btw. I guess we haven't been properly introduced.]

The short answer to your question is "Nothing," but I don't think that will get us very far.

As someone who hopes against hope for an eternal hereafter myself, I thoroughly agree with you - nothing is more important than improving this world. The hope of another life is no excuse for bodging this one.

Religion gives us a powerful moral imperative to have a go at making the world better

My question is whether the death of religion is the best way to achieve this improvement. A lot of people find that spirituality adds a whole great new dimension to their life - why not let them have their fun?

What's more, a lot of us find that religion gives us a powerful moral imperative to have a go at making the world better. Isn't that a good thing too?

As for what the Archbishop said, I agree that organised religion in this country is on its last legs, but disorganised religion is doing pretty well. There's a lot to be said for that state of affairs, I reckon.


To: Steve Tomkins
Sent: 1.33pm
Subject: That's all very well

We are clearly going to agree on a lot of issues - as I rather expected - but before I can comment on whether I think people should be encouraged in their quest for the spiritual life, I might possibly need to know what you mean by that.

Religion has a divisive effect on human relationships

I am all for encouraging people to stand back from the concerns of their immediate life and marvel at the wonder of this planet, the incredible fact that we are even here at all, the fragility and beauty of life, the intensity of pain, the overwhelming joy of love, but what does religion have to do with that? We will experience that anyway if we just give ourselves time for it.

However, I am far more concerned at the way that religion has a divisive effect on human relationships.

Take religious schools for example. It concerns humanists greatly that this government is currently supporting and encouraging the Church in its evangelical mission to "re-Christianise" our society through an increase in religious schools.

Given the track record of the way that people of strong religious convictions have gotten along together - or rather haven't - over the last couple of thousand years, and the problems we are seeing in the North of England and Northern Ireland, I don't see that religion has much to offer in the spiritual department as I understand it.


To: Madeleine Pym
Sent: 1.50pm
Subject: There's more to it than that

What is spirituality? I think it is all the things you mention, but for religious believers it is also an attempt to tap into something beyond the material world. Whether there is genuinely someone out there, or we're actually just tapping into ourselves, I don't know, but it seems to do us some good.

Certainly, some people might achieve the same result without bringing deities into it. But others convert to a religion because they find it opens a window that didn't seem to be there before.

It's faith that inspired people like Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu

The effect of religion on human relationships? Mixed. Yes, it can be horrendously divisive, and yet it also compels believers to offer costly forgiveness and work towards reconciliation.

Christianity has been a force for evil, justifying, for example, apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the States. And yet it's the same faith that inspired people like Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu to overcome racism peacefully and with forgiveness.

So you're right to find fault, but "not much to offer in the spiritual department" goes too far, surely.


To: Steve Tomkins
Sent: 3.15pm
Subject: It's about the greater good

Are you suggesting that my spiritual vein is the same as your spiritual vein because that would be rather like saying that your god is the same god as my god or rather, in my case, non-god, wouldn't it? And that's the problem, these gods just are not the same gods, in fact some of them have been at each other's throats for centuries.

The last 50 years of peace in Western Europe is attributable to secular humanist endeavours

As for forgiveness and reconciliation, as a model for human behaviour I have some reservations about this. Take human relationships for example, a classically dysfunctional pattern is making up only to break up again, and usually underneath it lies a refusal on one or both sides to move beyond the original problematic position - to grow and change. One party suspects that they are in fact "right", and clings to a very fundamental belief that they won't really relinquish. And I guess what I am saying is that in the case of religion this seems to be these gods and their associated doctrines offering special rewards to the chosen few.

Lastly, Martin Luther King was a great man who fought a fantastic fight - as you say peacefully and with forgiveness - but I would argue that the aspect of his faith that inspired him is to be found in certain values and principles that would be found in common in any liberal secular culture.

There is no religious exclusivity about these. In fact I might point out that the last 50 years of peace in Western Europe is attributable to secular humanist endeavours to transcend partisan religiosity in favour of a greater common good, through the agency of organisation like the UN for example.


To: Madeleine Pym
Sent: 4.10pm
Subject: You've got a point, but...

Am I saying all spiritual veins are the same? No, I was pointing out the difference between your spirituality and mine. Though who knows, maybe the veins connect to the same heart.

Are all gods the same? I agree there are as many different beliefs about who God is as there are believers. But in the same way, there are as many different versions of what's right and wrong as there are human beings.

Religion is divisive because people are

You see, I think religion is divisive because people are divisive. They fight over religion when religion looms large on their landscape. When it doesn't, they fight over politics, race, football, music.... Religion isn't the fundamental problem, people are.

Next, I don't follow your jump from "reconciliation is dysfunctional" to religious elitism, so I'll answer the first point. Obviously, restoring a broken relationship can be bad news, if as you say, nothing has changed and the original problems just pick up where they left off. But I can only point you back to my two examples: in both cases reconciliation meant not just passive forgiving, but a real change in the situation that let the abuse arise.

As for MLK, he was inspired by Ghandi and Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. Ghandi was inspired by the religious writings of Tolstoy, and the Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy was inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. So if these values are shared with humanists, I think it's more likely that you got them from Jesus than the other way round.

As for 50 years of peace though, yes, OK we owe you one.


To: Steve Tomkins
Sent: 4.50pm
Subject: Your god is confusing, you know

Now we are getting to it. The heart!

You say that perhaps the veins - of our spirituality - connect to the same heart. For you and me perhaps. But I would still say that that heart is to be found in our shared values and perhaps our shared reverence for life. But I still maintain that these values are to be found throughout the world and throughout history and are not exclusive to this one religion of Christianity.

Does your god suffer from a split personality?

But this is a very different heart from the heart which you yourself acknowledged, has been a force for violence, oppression and hatred. And that surely is your God too, isn't it? Or are there two. That jealous God of the old testament; that God who has advocated the quietism of a life of narrow and cramped self-denial for some and an earthly gluttonous paradise for others; that God who would deny a woman the use of contraceptives and condemn her, and her children, to a life of bitter struggle, hunger and want; that God who executes apostates and denounce gays, etc etc?

Or does your god suffer from a spilt personality? I have to admit I find that god of your very confusing.

Of course, not having a god I have only my humble values to fall back on, but at least I know where I am.

As ever,

And thanks for the bit about "we owe you one", you are very welcome. Just as I am for ever indebted to your MLK.

To: Madeleine Pym
Sent: 5.35pm
Subject: You are not the only one

Yes, humanitarian values are found (and breached) throughout the religions of the world and in the post-Christian West. This is no problem for those who believe we are all the (problem) children of God.

You list the atrocities committed by Christians in the name of God - and believe me you're not even scratching the surface. But again I say people, not religion, are the basic problem. Faith has been a catalyst, maybe, turning ordinary people into heroes and monsters. But take away religion, and you are not left with peace, love and understanding - as the great atheist regimes of the 20th Century like USSR and China demonstrated only too horribly.

You find that God of mine confusing. Me too.

How anyone can be such a bad influence and such a good influence, I don't know. But I think he's been quite a good influence on me.

Take away religion and you are not left with peace, love and understanding

I don't think his supporters handle power too well - though who does? That's why - unlike the Cardinal - I'm not too upset to see us relegated to the sidelines. We don't want power, but we want a voice, because we have something to say worth hearing.


See also:

07 Sep 01 | Talking Point
Is Christianity still relevant?
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