Nazir Ali on Christian Britain

An new essay by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali provides the Daily Mail with a sensationalist headline:

Bishop says collapse of Christianity is wrecking British society – and Islam is filling the void

The Mail explains:

It has destroyed family life and left the country defenceless against the rise of radical Islam in a moral and spiritual vacuum.

…In a blow to Gordon Brown, he mocked the ‘scramblings and scratchings’ of politicians who try to cast new British values such as respect and tolerance.

The Pakistani-born bishop dated the downfall of Christianity from the ‘social and sexual revolution’ of the 1960s.

He said Church leaders had capitulated to Marxist revolutionary thinking and quoted an academic who blames the loss of ‘faith and piety among women’ for the steep decline in Christian worship.

I suspect Callum Brown will be wincing somewhat at this polemical use of his 2000 book The Death of Christian Britain, which links secularisation with women’s liberation in the 1960s. Brown’s (interesting) argument is that British Christianity had developed a sentimental idealization of women as “angels in the house”, while men were seen as inherently wayward and in need of feminine guidance. As women found new freedoms in the 1960s (thanks in large part to the contraceptive pill), they ceased to be the domestic carriers of piety, resulting in a collapse of British religiosity. In other words, changes in family life led to the decline of Christianity, rather than the other way round.

Nazir Ali’s essay appears in the first issue of Standpoint, the new magazine published by the right-wing Social Affairs Unit. It’s a strange piece; in some places subtle and academic, in others bombastic. Nazir Ali traces British values and identity to Christianity: “systems of governance, of the rule of law, of the assumption of trust in common life all find their inspiration in Scripture”. As a “descending theme”, Christianity “produced a network of divine, human and natural law which was the basis of a just ordering of society”, while as an ascending theme Christianity (helped by Aristotle) developed ideas of “personhood”, creating a “dual emphasis on conscience and consent”. This then joined Enlightenment ideas:

While the Evangelicals drew inspiration from the Bible for their humanitarian projects, such as the abolition of slavery, universal education and humane conditions of work for men, women and children, the Enlightenment provided them with the intellectual tools and the moral vision of natural rights so that they could argue their case in the public sphere. It was this Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus which brought about the huge social changes of the 19th and early 20th centuries and which came under sustained attack in the second half of the 20th century.

Nazir Ali then uses Peter Mullen to give Brown’s thesis a polemical and conspiratorial edge:

Peter Mullen and others, similarly, have traced the situation to the student unrest of the 1960s which they claim was inspired by Marxism of one sort or another. The aim was to overturn what I have called the Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus so that revolution might be possible. One of the ingredients in their tactics was to encourage a social and sexual revolution so that a political one would, in due course, come about. Mullen points out that instead of the Churches resisting this phenomenon, liberal theologians and Church leaders all but capitulated to the intellectual and cultural forces of the time.

This is just crude red-baiting; on the whole, people in the 1960s had freer sex (and talked about it more) because they could, rather than because they wanted Marxist revolution. Brown is surely right to emphasise technological advances in contraception, and Nazir Ali’s approach ignores wider sociological processes at work; we find similar increases in sexual freedom in other modernized countries. To bring in another sociologist, Steve Bruce has observed that:

…the decline of the traditional nuclear family had very little to do with the writings of the enemies of the family. Rather than being a cause, is is far more likely that such propaganda was a symptom of changes already in progress. Changes in the family cannot be separated from changes in the structure of the economy, the expansion of the idea of rights, and increasing affluence…The world turns out as it does not because anyone wants it like that, because actions engaged in for one purpose have unanticipated consequences…Especially if we can find some group of people who did want [a] change, we can readily (but mistakenly) suppose it happened because they wanted it and it can be reversed by us wanting something different. (1)

Nazir Ali/Mullen complain that Christian leaders “all but capitulated” to the cultural changes of the 1960s, but how well have those churches that refused any engagement with those changes fared? And why is not Mullen’s famous enthusiasm for Thatcherism not similarly a “capitulation”, or the American Christian Right’s unquestioning support for George Bush and his national security doctrines? And just because Marxism played a role in 1960s student unrest, that hardly means that Marxism created that unrest, or that the things it critiqued should not have been challenged, even though Nazir Ali takes it for granted that the “Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus” amounted to the best of all possible worlds, and could only be undermined by malignant outside forces. From here, the Bishop gets even sillier:

It is this situation that has created the moral and spiritual vacuum in which we now find ourselves. While the Christian consensus was dissolved, nothing else, except perhaps endless self-indulgence, was put in its place. Happily Marxism, in its various forms, has been shown to be the philosophical, historical and economic nonsense that it always was. But we are now confronted by another equally serious ideology, that of radical Islamism, which also claims to be comprehensive in scope. What resources do we have to face yet another ideological battle?

Now, there’s plenty to criticise in Marxism, but it remains a serious academic tool of analysis and it has provided some useful insights. Often it can be crude and one-note, but to suggest that it is somehow “equal” with Islamic fundamentism is not a statement to be taken seriously.

Unsurprisingly, the “resources” to which Nazir Ali wants us to turn are the “Judaeo-Christian tradition”, since the “the ‘thin’ values of respect, decency and fairness” are inadequate. And it’s not enough simply to acknowledge this historically:

While some acknowledge the debt which Britain owes to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, they claim also that the values derived from it are now free-standing and that they can also be derived from other world-views. As to them being free-standing, the danger, rather, is that we are living on past capital which is showing increasing signs of being exhausted. Values and virtues by which we live require what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin called “plausibility structures” for their continuing credibility. They cannot indefinitely exist in a vacuum.

Therefore Christianity ought to have a continuing role in public life – although how this in itself will shore up the “plausibility structures” of Christianity is not explained.

Nazir Ali goes on to contrast Christian and Islamic values, suggesting that Islamic values might take over:

Instead of the Christian virtues of humility, service and sacrifice, there may be honour, piety and the importance of “saving face”.

But what makes honour, piety and “saving face” particularly Islamic? These traditional values have also loom large in Western history. Any how would they come to dominate in a generally irreligious Britain anyway? Although Nazir Ali dismisses secular values as “thin”, the fact is that a generally secular and irreligious lifestyle appears to be attractive to most people in Britain. Nazir Ali sees a “spiritual vacuum”, but most people don’t, and most of those who do can chose between a range of religious options. And among some immigrants from Muslim countries, Western secular living has attractions. I discussed this point in the very early days of this blog, when Cal Thomas wrote an alarmist piece on Islam taking over the UK, based on conversion figures. As I asked then: how many conversions are purely nominal, for marriage reasons and such? How many converts backslide or move on to something else? And how many Muslim immigrants become secular, or at least nominalist?

However, Nazir Ali improves a bit as he heads towards a rather pedestrian conclusion:

Every temptation to theocracy, on every side, must be renounced. There is no place for coercion where the relationship of religion to the state is concerned.

…At the same time, government will have to be increasingly open to religious concerns and to make room for religious conscience, as far as it is possible to do so. Religious leaders, for their part, will seek to guide their peoples in the light of their faith and to seek to make a contribution to public life on the same basis. The integrity and autonomy of public authority and of the law will also have to be recognised, and it would be best if religious law in its application were left to the communities and to the free obedience of their members. Public law, however, should continue to provide overarching protection for all…At the same time, it should be possible for Muslims to contribute to the development of a common life by bringing the maqasid, or principles of the sharia, to bear on the discussion. These have to do with the protection of the individual and of society and can be argued on their own merits without attempting to align two quite different systems of law.

That last sentence is obviously a jibe at the position which was recently ascribed to Rowan Williams regarding Shariah, but the sentence preceding it will hopefully disappoint the Melanie Phillips crowd.

In fact, though, Britain is quite good at “making room for religious conscience”, having from 1689 onwards slowly removed various impediments against first Dissenters, and then Catholics and later non-Christians. One great British virtue – not found in the Bible – is compromise and a willingness to amend the rules to accommodate special needs. At times accomodation may go too far, and at times modern secular values may clash with religious values, but Britain is not France, and if Christianity’s role in British public life has diminished it is not because it has been generally suppressed in some way.

Nazir Ali doesn’t appear to have many answers, and it seems to me that the spectre of Islamization has been thrown into to the mix of the essay simply because he’s the Bishop of Rochester and this is what he does.

I last blogged on Nazir Ali a few days ago here. The Social Affairs Unit also promotes Creationism.


(1) Steve Bruce, Sociology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 1999), pp. 91-92