The row between Christina Odone and the Royal Commonwealth Society reveals the deeply simplistic attitude even believers seem to hold towards religion. Odone and her cheerleaders (literally: upsettingly, she seems to be what passes for a pin-up in this crowd) attack “simplistic scientism” and “one track rationalism”. In reality, they are as brutely rationalist as the secularists.
Take Telegraph blogger Damian Thompson (he’s a friend of Christina’s, doncha know). According to him, “carols are unambiguously Christian: they celebrate the birth of the divine Messiah”.
OK…so, if, like me, you aren’t a believer but you still go to carol services, are you praying? Should you be allowed to sing – after all, these are “unambiguously Christian” tunes?
The principle here seems to be that Christianity is a set of rules that you either conform to or you do not. Not only is this patently ludicrous, given the doctrinal variations Christianity has seen over the centuries. But it is also a perplexingly rationalistic attitude to see from those who should understand that dogma’s flaws.
It was the sainted Michael Oakeshott who saw that rational knowledge is only ever half the story. Practical knowledge – the kind of knowledge you can’t write down – is just as important. You don’t cook solely from a cookbook, or drive from a driving manual. And you aren’t Christian only if you pray when you sing carols.
Christianity cannot be written down, let alone formulated into a set of rules. It cannot be learnt from a book any more than it can be learnt from a correspondence course. It is embedded in the practices of a nation weaned on such things. Practices that, with bitter irony, the religious faction in this country is doing its best to destroy.
I understand why believers feel under threat. I even have a lot of sympathy for the position Ms Odone put forward in the offending speech, even if I shudder to think of her actually delivering it. (To my mind the most offensive part of this sorry tale is the thought of “celebrity readers” delivering homilies on the theme of “opportunities for all” – truly ghastly).
But the religious must see how their insistence on the Christianity of carols damages their case.
In the first place, it leaves them open to the literalist attack – what I like to call the “Hitchens gambit”.
Secondly, and far more seriously, it alienates the culturally Christian – people like me, and the vast majority of the 26m who described themselves as Anglican at the last census. If the religious faction isn’t careful, those people will give up even the traditional side of their faith, and go over to the secularists.
Unless, of course, removing the culturally Christian is exactly what the religious faction wants. After all, true believers have often tended to be more outraged by heretics of their own faith than they are by fanatics of other ones…