Last weekend my partner and I were taking a Sunday constitutional in our local park when we heard the sound of singing and guitars blowing in the breeze. As lovers of music, we naturally followed our ears and walked over to the bandstand, and yet discovered, to our horror, a huge crowd of happy, smiley people, holding hands, swaying to the beat, looking to the sky, and singing about Jesus. Our skin crawled, and we ran in the other direction to continue our quiet contemplation of nature.
But it got me thinking. Exactly why do Christians give us the creeps? Some set my skin crawling more than others, and the happy-clappy evangelicals and the door-knockers are the worst of them. But nevertheless there’s something about the whole Christian gig that makes me extremely reluctant to buy a ticket, even when it’s for one night only and they’re being given out for free. But again, why? Exactly why?
It’s not because I am hostile to religion as such. I am not. Most if not all of the most profound wisdom and practical, useful instruction on how to live a moral and happy life is to be found in the great religious texts. This is true regardless of whether or not you are able to accept every dot and comma of the doctrine there propounded, or can accept on faith the existence of some thing or some Being called God. And it’s not even because I am hostile on principle to Christians or to the teachings of Jesus. Quite the opposite: the authors I turn to again and again for consolation and for instruction in negotiating life are almost all of them either Christian or at least deeply inspired and influenced by the Gospels and the Bible – Dickens, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, John Cowper Powys, and so on.
Again then, why? I haven’t yet come up with an answer that entirely satisfies me. But the closest I’ve come to an answer is to do with belief and evangelism.
When I stand on my doorstep in the mornings and listen to the birds in the trees welcoming the dawn, I have no need for belief in the trees or in the birds or in joy. They exist, they are, you can’t deny them. ‘Belief’, however, has by its nature something of the counter-factual about it. You are asked whether or not you believe in some proposition or other, presumably because there’s a choice in the matter. You can believe, or not, and yet still be considered relatively rational or sane in either case. Belief isn’t something you can stub your toe on; it’s more like a story you listen to and either accept or not. Someone once said that belief is to be trapped in a lie. Perhaps. It’s certainly to be bewitched by some fiction, for good or for evil. But contrary to what most people believe, it’s not actually necessary to believe in anything. It really isn’t! I remember a famous physicist, I forget who, being asked once what he believed, and he replied that he didn’t believe in anything. It’s the scientific way – you investigate to see what is the case, you don’t attach to your beliefs. If you do have beliefs, and it’s probably harder to do without them than we at first imagine, you should wear them lightly. Because to believe fanatically in what is by its nature a fiction, an airy product of our minds and imaginations, is a bit loopy.
What about evangelism then? Evangelism can only be the attempt to force other people to believe what you believe. This attempt to force your own mind onto others may well be done by the most gentle persuasion, the sweetest appeal to reason, the most rational appraisal of the facts, but it still feels to an unwilling audience like an act of oppression, of authoritarianism, of aggression. We cannot control much, if anything, in this world, but one thing we can control, with some subtle effort and much practice, is our minds. The last thing we want is an unwelcome authoritarian intruder strutting around in there, barking out his orders.
As I said above, belief is not actually necessary. Neither, then, is evangelism. It’s possible to propagate the truth simply by living it. If something is true, you should live your life by its light. And if doing that is beneficial to yourself and to others, then it will be obvious and inspirational to see. It’s the only kind of ‘propaganda’ that works. Saying that is easy; doing it, not so much. It’s the kind of thing that takes a lifetime to master. But what else are we going to do be doing with our time?
I’ve been talking here about Christians and Christianity, but I hope it will be obvious that it applies with equal force to us on the left. It should make us think: does our activity as socialists give the very people we are trying to appeal to the creeps? Almost certainly the answer is yes, at least some of the time. We must learn to tread more carefully.