Keep the Faith: For Most Europeans, a Belief in God May Have Given Way to a Belief in Democracy, Law and Human Rights. but the Almighty Remains the Source of Our Secular Freedoms, Argues Sholto Byrnes

By Byrnes, Sholto | New Statesman (1996), February 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Keep the Faith: For Most Europeans, a Belief in God May Have Given Way to a Belief in Democracy, Law and Human Rights. but the Almighty Remains the Source of Our Secular Freedoms, Argues Sholto Byrnes


Byrnes, Sholto, New Statesman (1996)


In the early stages of the First World War, observed the poet C J Squire, there was no escaping God:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

  God heard the embattled nations sing and shout:
    "Gott strafe England"--"God Save the King"--,
    "God this"--"God that"--and "God the other thing".
  "My God," said God, "I've got my work cut out."

By the 1990s the liberal, secular nations of the continent that fought that war no longer felt any need to call on God. There was a settled assumption that our civilisation had reached a plane higher than one constructed on the crude certainties of religion. Once communism had been defeated in Eastern Europe, the whole pantheon--Marx, Lenin and Stalin as well as the Judaeo-Christian deity--seemed no more than ghosts of the past, ever decreasing in influence until they would be remembered, like the Greek gods, only in legends and friezes.

In Britain, churches faced drastically declining numbers: an estimated one million people gave up regular attendance in the 1990s. The pronouncements of Cardinal Hume continued to be taken seriously, although that owed as much to the former abbot's evident gravitas as his official role. The same could not be said of his counterpart at Lambeth Palace, George Carey, whose orotund estuary English seemed to indicate a diminishment of his office sadly not matched by his waistline (the novelist A N Wilson used to refer to him cruelly, but not inaccurately, as "Mr Blobby"). When Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man proclaimed the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy in 1992, that victory appeared to be over religion as well as political ideology.

Since then, the challenges to liberal secularism in Europe have been obvious. They are a resurgent Islam; and the effects on the EU of an eastern expansion that took in more overtly religious populations. There were rows over whether a reference to God should be included in the now-abandoned EU constitution or the 2007 celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

God is back. And this time He isn't the woolly deity of the dear old C of E, so gentlemanly an old cove that He didn't appear to object when hardly anyone turned up on Sundays, or if one of His bishops cast doubts on His miracles or His existence. This time He has the whiff of brimstone about Him. But the truth is that we'd never got rid of God in the first place.

"Without God," wrote Dostoevsky, "everything is permitted." Proponents of secular liberal democracy would vehemently disagree, pointing to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights or the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. We're very fond of talking about rights, and we are highly attached to them. But even when we are not using the term sloppily--unless it's enshrined in law, for instance, you no more have the "right" not to breathe in my second-hand smoke on the street than I have the "right" to your last Rolo--we are all too hazy about where they come from.

Thomas Jefferson wasn't. Men's "certain unalienable Rights", he wrote in the American Declaration of Independence, were "endowed by their Creator". When God is in the picture it may well be "self-evident" where natural rights, or the human rights we talk of today, originate. When He isn't, these rights have their very foundations removed. If they don't come from God, they must come from man; and that puts them on a very different footing.

This isn't a problem for everyone. Some are happy to think of rights as no more than human constructs, the scaffolding of law we build around implicit social contracts. Rights become meaningful only when they are legally recognised as such, and are therefore mutable and subjective. You may have the right not to be hanged for a sheep today, but you wouldn't have done several centuries ago and, if parliament so votes, you might not do tomorrow. Under this interpretation, you have to accept that other societies may decide upon other types of rights, even ones that you might consider barbaric. …

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Keep the Faith: For Most Europeans, a Belief in God May Have Given Way to a Belief in Democracy, Law and Human Rights. but the Almighty Remains the Source of Our Secular Freedoms, Argues Sholto Byrnes
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