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Press: Williams helps Statesman readers to think

28 August 2020

THE New Statesman takes religion much more seriously than The Spectator at the moment. For The Spectator, what is interesting are the politics of religion — which parties are in and which are out in different Churches. The New Statesman takes little interest in church politics. It asks why readers might care about religion who don’t care at all whether the Church of England becomes a Charismatic Evangelical monoculture run by Cambridge graduates, or even whether Pope Francis is a heretic.

Few people could carry their detachment from church politics as far as Rowan Williams did when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, but in his job as an essayist on the Statesman he does help people to think.

Here, he is discussing an American article that wondered why churches should be closed in the pandemic when believers should have no fear of death: “The annoying thing . . . is that it is almost right. There are worse things than dying, and facing death without panic is indeed something that ought to characterise people who profess serious faith. But then things begin to go astray. Its implication is that believers are natural heroes and that their heroism should dictate how a whole society reacts to crisis.

“Faced with the threat of fatal pandemic disease, trumpeting one’s own willingness to be fearless is not what matters.

“Not denying death — not lying — involves seeing where death starts eating away at societies, relationships and imagination. A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death isn’t a call to heroics for the ego.”

The magazine also commissions pieces from John Gray, who must be Britain’s most prominent atheist, and certainly the most consistent one (Features, 25 May 2018). In the same issue, he reviewed a history of magic.

“Science distances human beings from the world, removing them to a point where they can gain an abstract understanding of physical processes. In religion the primary human relation is with gods or a god, mediated through priesthoods and places of worship. Distinct from both, and preceding them in its development, magic works through participation in the universe, which is conceived not as purely mechanical but as being animate, even sentient.

“It is impossible to understand the convulsions of the past 100 years, or take the measure of the present time, without grasping that movements that claimed to apply science in politics and society were expressions of magical thinking.

“It is often noted that the science that supported anti-liberal movements such as Nazism and communism was bogus, and so it was. Less often recognised is the fact that the science underpinning the belief that the world was converging on liberal values was equally counterfeit. Only a few years ago, prestigious think tanks in Washington, DC, were holding unending seminars on how China was slowly but inexorably approaching a Western-style economy and mode of government. Even today, some insist that Xi Jinping’s China is merely a passing deviation along the way. The fact that the imagined destination — US democracy — is tearing itself apart is passed over.

“This kind of liberalism is not science, or even religion, but magical thinking. By participating in the world, members of social movements believe they are reshaping it according to a model in their minds.”

But of course they believe that! It’s at least half true. Reshaping the world to conform with your imagination is how everything works, from religions, through nations, to money. In his eagerness for cold dispassion, Gray seems here to miss the way in which myths hold people together, both as individuals and as a society.


THE TIMES has published four articles in the past four days by Andrew Norfolk about the personal Facebook postings of trustees of Islamic Relief Worldwide who had posted unpleasant things about Jews. The entire board of trustees resigned as a result.

Unlike Norfolk’s pieces on Tower Hamlets, for instance, the facts in these have not been challenged. Yet the focus on Islamic charities still makes me uneasy.
There are American Evangelical charities, some operating in this country, which regard Islam (and, I think, Muslims) much as anti-Semitic Muslims regard the Jews. They would never get called out in the same way. Franklin Graham, for instance, had his tour of Britain postponed because of his condemnations of homosexuality rather than his views on Islam.

Driving anti-Semitic language out of public life seems to me a worthwhile aim. It is very much harder, though, to divide charities into political and non-political. To those they protect, Hamas and Hezbollah both appear as charitable organisations. From a street gang to a nation, every organisation wants to be a terror to its enemies and a stronghold for its friends. Even Islamic State ran a kind of welfare state, as did the Columbian drug gangs.

Of course, you could carry this analogy too far: I’ve never heard people say that they bought their cocaine in the hope that some of the profits would filter down to the street children of Medellín, even if some tiny fraction undoubtedly did. Even really bad people manage to do real good sometimes. The world would be unendurable otherwise.

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