Religion, civic virtue, and the Church of England | Rievaulx
I am a social, political and moral conservative. I gain this from a natural Romantic impulse towards the intensity of life, the good with the bad; the opposite of which is the utopian impulse to meekly water life down, removing pain at the expense of true life-experience and meaning. My eternal enemy is the ghastly, bland future depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I see popping up all around me both in technological advances and social decay. The only stance a modern conservative can take against this, apart from sheer Luddism, is an archeofuturist one – to use the past to bolster the future, and make sure going forwards that technology and morality serve humanity rather than vice versa.
This is how I am able to be a secular conservative, for I am, currently at least, an irreligious deist. That said, it is impossible for me not to recognise the vast benefit that organised religion brings to civilisation.
If you want to create a safe, happy, free society you need people to believe that an action is wrong even if nobody sees them do it. The lack of this is the key flaw of secular moral systems.
Hence why all functional liberal societies are built on the backs of privately religious people. But this can’t last so long as the State is officially neutral on matters of religion, as most liberal states are.
Such is the paradox of liberal secularism. Too much religious favouritism and the State becomes
theocratic, like the Islamic Republic of Iran. Total state indifference to religion, on the other hand, increases the possibility of religious breakdown and societal secularisation, which will just as easily destroy the liberal order; as we are discovering in England, where religious authority is being replaced by the heavy arm of the State, equipped with access to millions of CCTV cameras to make up rather shabbily for the absence of the Eye of God.
Surely there must be a middle way, between theocracy and demoralisation? A system that promotes religious order while safeguarding freedom of thought? Well, there are precedents for such a thing.
It is well known freethinking philosophers and sceptics were tolerated in Antiquity, so long as they did not blaspheme and respected religion as the guarantor of social order and the State’s authority. My friend Harry J. Fitzpatrick has posited that the closest thing to this in modernity is the “Hindutva” ideal in India. This makes sense. Hinduism, while mostly Dravidian, nevertheless shares a common origin with Graeco-Roman polytheism in ancient Indo-European religion. It is effectively the last great paganism, and like all paganisms lacks dogma and is diverse to the point of not really being a singular “religion” at all. This allows for huge freedom of belief and thought within a shared “Hindu” identity which, Hindu nationalists argue, provides social and national cohesion for the vast, diverse Republic of India.
There is another example far closer to home. I recall listening to a Christian podcast in which an American evangelical Protestant rather excitedly interviewed the English conservative commentator Peter Hitchens (author of The Rage Against God), but came away in the end very disappointed. Hitchens kept saying things like “I’m English. I’m not passionate about anything” and overall gave off the impression in the interviewer’s words he was “an Englishman first, a Christian second”. And I think that’s what English Christianity has always been. A means to an end.
If you think atheism is a new thing, I’m pretty sure many intellectual men in the Victorian era had their doubts also, and had a better knowledge of other religions and Classical mythology than most people today. But they understood the importance of the Queen’s Church in their country and empire so played along.
Just the phrase “Church of England man” alone brings to mind a drab, plain-speaking, sensible, perhaps even mildly cynical person who knows his duty and place in society.
Before our mass secularisation, England had the perfect compromise. A loose, lax, relatively non-dogmatic established Church promoted by the State and education system, while freedom of religion and thought were guaranteed. This was the lasting victory of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.
But I suppose that’s mostly gone now. On our present national trajectory, it’s inevitable the Church of England will someday be disestablished. That old pragmatic English Christianity still exists only in a handful of churches nationwide. Anglicanism will continue in new, un-English forms; in overzealous evangelical Protestantism and pompous Anglo-Catholicism fundamentally abhorrent to our history and culture. Yet, even if the English people aren’t particularly religious anymore, I’m thankful that a gentle scepticism of all things dogmatic or zealous survives in them. We’ve seen this in their repeated rejections of political correctness and lofty theories of intersectionality and European unity. It’s a key part of that wider English identity of unassumingness and emotional control which made us great as a nation. I only hope it can continue in a country encroached on by Americanisation on one side, and threatened by continued Europeanisation on the other.