Public policy in a democracy rests upon public opinion, which in turn rests on public feeling. The feelings people have towards remote and abstract objects such as states and categories are normally pretty stable, but when they do change, they resemble earthquakes in the political world. Shelby Steele has recently been writing of the revolution in public feeling that took place in America in the 1960s, when white racism was replaced by white guilt. Whole new social and moral structures have been thrown up. The appearance of anti-Americanism in Europe in the wake of 9/11 is less fundamental, but is also in many respects a revolution of feeling. Israel has found itself buffeted by this change. My concern is with another shift in recent sentiment, less dramatic but in my view no less significant. It is the rising hatred of Christianity among Western peoples, which I shall call "Christophobia."
I am not, of course, talking of secularism. Scepticism about Christianity largely began in the eighteenth century and increased steadily throughout the twentieth. It is hardly surprising that a revelation couched in the idiom of a remote past and purporting to reveal the transcendental aspects of the human condition could not survive the coming of what we may call "the scientific world view" in which truth is tested by empirical confirmation. Much of Christianity has responded to this development by retreating into a modernist accommodation with what it takes to be science. It has generated the ecumenical movement, a kind of deism (if I understand it rightly) in which all religions are treated as variant responses to the one divine creation.
Secularism, then, is not at all puzzling. It leads one to expect that Christianity would slowly fade away, leaving Christians to their services and secularists to long Sabbath mornings with the Sunday papers. There are indeed exceptions to this general picture of accommodation mitigating decline. Christianity remains a cause of violent conflict in places like Northern Ireland. In the United States, there is trouble at the interface where evangelicals and Roman Catholics encounter feminism and abortion clinics. The Catholic Church remains resistant to the march of modernity in some striking respects, but it too has long been on the defensive, and liberation theology leaves ecumenism panting behind. In Africa and South America, Christians are prospering mightily, but the zeal to persecute heretics which periodically characterized Christian Churches from the late middle ages into the early modern period has largely faded away. And this is why the problem arises. Why should significant numbers of Westerners, especially among the educated, increasingly exhibit a quite visceral hatred of this apparently declining set of beliefs?
I first noticed this sentiment in the case of the brothers Hitchens, celebrated journalists, one on each side of the Atlantic. Christopher is a "left-wing maverick" and recently visited his native Britain. He and his brother Peter, a patriotic Conservative in London, aren't very close. Why not, asked an interviewer in The Times. Is it because you are so far apart politically? Not at all, replied Christopher. What I can't stand is that Peter is a practicing Christian. Hitchens takes the view of the English publisher who once defined a religious fanatic as anyone who believed in God. But that was a joke, and Christopher isn't joking. Again, in November last year in Britain, an award for Christian athletes was dropped because of a reluctance among the athletes to be "outed" as Christians. The work of people like Richard Dawkins in Oxford breathes the passions of the long gone Rationalist Press Association for whose readers Christianity was a repressive power against which every form of free expression from science to free love was struggling to breathe. Meanwhile, Philip Pullman, whose best-selling trilogy for children promises to become, as it were, …