Will David Miliband be the UK’s first atheist prime minister?
And so Mr Grayling begins:
‘When Labour cabinet members were asked about their religious allegiances last December, following Tony Blair's official conversion to Roman Catholicism, it turned out that more than half of them are not believers. The least equivocal about their atheism were the health secretary, Alan Johnson, and foreign secretary David Miliband.’
Cranmer could give the whole article a good fisking: it is begging for it. But there is something woefully inadequate about it that causes one to question whether Mr Grayling is even half the philosopher he is cracked up to be.
His first mistake is in taking Labour Cabinet members at their word. Would you believe anything they said? Would you have believed Tony Blair's protestations that he is a committed member of the Church of England? Or Gordon Brown on his Christian convictions? And if not, why would you believe David Miliband? He manifestly now has just one agenda, and that is to become prime minister. For that, he needs to be a figure of unity. And since religion divides, it must be eradicated.
And Mr Grayling considers this a good thing, because ‘Atheist leaders are not going to think they are getting messages from Beyond telling them to go to war. They will not cloak themselves in supernaturalistic justifications, as Blair came perilously close to doing when interviewed about the decision to invade Iraq.’
Perilously close to doing? Why perilous? Is it not better to be subjecting one’s discernment to a higher moral worldview than to frame the world according to one’s own morality? Is it not better to be ‘getting messages from Beyond’ rather than getting them from the White House?
’Atheist leaders are going to be more sceptical about inculcating sectarian beliefs into small children ghettoised into publicly funded faith-based schools, risking social divisiveness and possible future conflict. They will be readier to learn Northern Ireland's bleak lesson in this regard.’
This is such puerile reasoning that Mr Grayling appears to have reverted to GCSE philosophy. Like Dawkins, he is blind to the militant sectarianism of Atheism; ignorant of the force for good that true religion has always been (and Cranmer said true religion). Faith-based schools have historically worked in the UK, and they continue to surpass their ‘secular’ counterparts in exam results. Far from being socially divisive, the students who leave them are by and large forces for social cohesion and are frequently more respectful towards their fellow human beings and of authority and tradition.
‘Atheist leaders will, by definition, be neutral between the different religious pressure groups in society, and will have no temptation not to be even-handed because of an allegiance to the outlook of just one of those groups.’
Neutral? Is Mr Grayling not familiar with Rawls for Dummies? There is an evident dilemma in seeking neutrality of political effect because intrinsic to the pursuit of any policy is the likelihood that it will have a detrimental effect on at least one conception of the good (not least the Church of England) to the manifest benefit of another. There are manifestly circumstances in which it is inappropriate to act neutrally, not least where there are not even prima facie reasons to be neutral. Indeed, Mr Grayling ought to consider that there is no neutrality to be had because neutrality needs as much justification as any other position.
‘Atheist leaders are more likely to take a literally down-to-earth view of the needs, interests and circumstances of people in the here and now, and will not be influenced by the belief that present sufferings and inequalities will be compensated in some posthumous dispensation. This is not a trivial point: for most of history those lower down the social ladder have been promised a perch at the top when dead, and kept quiet thereby. The claim that in an imperfect world one's hopes are better fixed on the afterlife than on hopes of earthly paradises is official church doctrine.’
Actually, posthumous dispensation has been the most persuasive inspiration to good works in the history of mankind. Cranmer cannot see a Wilberforce or a Shaftesbury being ‘driven’ by Atheism. No, they were imbued with a divine and righteous anger which gave them a mission to pursue justice. Mr Grayling may be content to pour scorn on ‘official church doctrine’ but he then preaches the gospel of Marx, seemingly unable himself to learn the lessons of very recent history.
‘Atheist leaders will not be tempted to think they are the messenger of any good news from above, or the agent of any higher purpose on earth. Or at very least, they will not think this literally.’
Really? Mr Grayling ought to try telling that to the millions who died in order that Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot could construct their earthly atheistic paradises. Atheists have been responsible for some of the most appalling barbarism in the history of the world, but it is convenient for Mr Grayling to ignore this. Of course, they were not the messengers of some ‘higher’ power, but the agents of their own conviction, and that propensity to unaccountable infallibility is far more dangerous indeed.
But then we come to Mr Grayling’s central thesis:
‘Best of all, if David Miliband becomes prime minister, the prospect of disestablishment of the Church of England will have come closer. This is a matter of importance, for two chief reasons. The first is that the CofE's privileged position gives other religious groups too much incentive to try sharp-elbowing their way into getting similar privileges, such as the ear of ministers, tax exemptions, public funding for their own sect's faith schools, and the big prize of seats in the legislature.
Secondly, the CofE has far too big a footprint in the public domain, out of all proportion to the actual numbers it represents: just 2% of the population go weekly to its churches. Yet it controls the primary school system - 80% of it - and a substantial proportion of the secondary school system, with dozens more academy schools soon due to fall under its control. It is entitled to have 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords, plus a number more who have been made life peers on retiring; and it has the automatic ear of government - do not suppose that if Rowan Williams phones No 10 he is told no one is at home.’
For all its faults, and they are legion, the Church of England embodies something of the psyche of the English people. It may be that 2% of the population attend, yet, according to the last census, 70% of the population acknowledge a cultural affinity with what it represents.
The genius of Anglicanism is that it seeks to reconcile opposed systems, rejecting them as exclusive systems, but showing that the principle for which each stands has its place within the total orbit of Christian truth. Beneath the surface is the feeling for the via media which is not in its essence compromise or an intellectual expedient but a quality of thinking, an approach in which elements usually regarded as mutually exclusive are seen to be in fact complementary. These things are held in living tension, not in order to walk the tightrope of compromise, but because they are seen to be mutually illuminating and to fertilise each other.
This is the ‘living tension’ which was first advocated by Hooker, who was opposed to absolutism in both church and state and an exponent of conciliar thought. This ensures that the laity, clergy and bishops all participate in guarding against autocracy in the state through a system of checks and balances that in many ways apes the parliamentary process. If authority is dispersed, spiritual tyranny is prevented. The similarities between the synodical and parliamentary procedures are unsurprising when both expressions of representative government have a common root in mediaeval political thought.
Notwithstanding this, Mr Grayling is persuaded that ‘Having a statedly atheist British prime minister makes it more likely that the functional secularity of British life and politics, the foregoing exceptions noted, will become actual secularity. Secularism means that matters of public policy and government are not under the influence, still less control, of sectarian religious interests. The phrase "separation of church and state" does not quite capture the sense in which a genuinely secular arrangement keeps religious voices on a par with all other non-governmental voices in the public square, and all the non-governmental players in the public square separate from the government itself. It means that churches and religious movements have to see themselves as civil society organisations like trades unions, political parties, the Scouts, and so on: with every right to exist, and to have their say, but as self-constituted interest groups no more entitled to a bigger share of the public pie of influence, privilege, tax handouts, and legal exemptions than any other self-appointed interest group.’
Sadly, he is blinded to the religious nature of secularism, and the faith position of Atheism. Militant secularism is an inviolable political creed and Atheism itself seeks to propagate an absolutist worldview and infallible doctrine as repugnant as any it seeks to repudiate. Should David Miliband ever become prime minister, one might expect a peerage for Mr Grayling in order that he might focus on the elimination of the 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords and the eradication of the Christian foundations of the nation and its constitution. And then he can spout his two-dimensional dogma and preach the gospel of Grayling to his heart’s content, while all the time, covertly and quietly, a far more militant and infinitely more dangerous spiritual power awaits its moment.
And if David Miliband's Atheism is the most laudable attribute that AC Grayling can proffer as commendation for the top job, God help us.