Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 10th September 2021.
My Lords, humans are essentially religious animals, in the sense that we are the only creatures who face the essentially religious questions. Who or what created us, and why? Is there a purpose to our existence? Are there absolute moral values or just our own preferences? Whether we answer yes, no, “don’t know” or even “don’t care”, we are taking a religious position, because these questions cannot be answered by the approach of physical sciences, nor can answers be derived logically from self-evident axioms.
Ultimately, we answer on the basis of our own perceptions and personal spiritual experience, or we adopt the current fashion or rely on the accumulated wisdom of our forebears. But initially, the answers we present to the next generation—explicitly or implicitly, and whether Christian or secular—will be in that sense essentially religious. The pretence that there is a choice between an upbringing based on science or abstract reason and one based on faith is essentially false, and the answers we give to those questions have a profound impact.
In his book Dominion, the historian Tom Holland shows how profoundly our history has been dominated by Christian ideas: by the gradual explication of the life, death, resurrection and teaching of Jesus Christ. He shows that even the enemies of Christianity or those who believe themselves emancipated from it have actually been derivative of it, albeit in unorthodox or even heretical form. He describes the history of Christianity, warts and all, but ultimately shows that it has been beneficial to us as a people. I am a terribly inadequate Christian, but even I can see that at the core of the Christian faith is the belief that God is love; that the whole of religion can be boiled down, in Christ’s words, to “love God and love your neighbours as yourselves—there are no commandments greater than these” and that, although we fall short of these laws, God wants to forgive us.
I frankly do not understand why the most sceptical, let alone humanists, should be upset about us teaching that belief to our children, but a generation has largely been deprived of that vision of the world. To adapt a saying attributed to GK Chesterton, when mankind ceases to believe in a benign creator, it does not believe in nothing but comes to believe in a malign creator.
I am struck by how children are taught, not universally but often in assemblies I have attended, a bizarre animist creed: that their maker—the planet—is the enemy of mankind. “The Earth has cancer and the cancer is Man” were the opening words of the letter from the Club of Rome, which has been repeated again and again. We are told that Gaia threatens us with extinction if we do not obey her commands. I remember going to a school where a boy said to me, “Mr Lilley, when are we all going to be burned to death?”. I thought that he had been exposed to a hellfire preacher, but he had been exposed to a modern ecologist at assemblies. Surely, we should be more worried by the propagation of such doctrines rather than those of our historic religion.
Machiavelli does not get a very good press in this place, or from Christians generally. However, he said that when a people become effete and decayed, they can only restore their vigour and purpose by returning to the principles on which they are founded. It would be very unwise for us to deprive our children of access to those principles.