Reflecting on the Olympics
A chill swept through me as I read Charles Moore’s recent article on the Beijing games1.
Media images of hard, cruel-faced bodyguards accompanying the Olympic torch around the world now slotted into place. ‘As the choice of Berlin for the Olympic Games in 1936 marked Hitler’s success and international acceptance, so the choice of Beijing for 2009 marks China’s’. In other words the global community was being treated to a massive con exercise. An emblem of peace masks a system of despotism.
The juxtaposition — Berlin and Beijing — is uncomfortable, to say the least. And recent reports of secret nuclear submarine bases in south China, not to mention America’s unprecedented financial indebtedness to the Asian giant, make it the more so. It will be dismissed out of hand by some as ill-timed and uncharitable scare-mongering from an envious and declining West. But what struck me most about Moore’s comment was his historical and comparative analysis for, as well as being true, it provides a helpful introduction to what I want to say about Richard Dawkins. ‘We have spent much time in recent years complaining about America’s abuse of power. Sometimes the criticism is justified, but we have hardly begun to consider the alternative and how appalling it would be. Whenever we attack America we do so in the knowledge that it has a visible system of self-correction that might listen to us. It has a constitutional structure which is built to accommodate differing views. China has nothing of the sort, and never has had.’
Degree of freedom
I emphasise the last four words deliberately: ‘and never has had’. At no point has China had anything remotely like the degree of social freedom and overall prosperity enjoyed for centuries in the West. In the more distant past its wealth and inventiveness surpassed anything comparable at the time. Similarly its social cohesion fostered by Confucian ethics was impressive. But none of these achievements ever existed alongside the enjoyment of individual freedom within the state. John Roberts, author of The Triumph of the West, expands on this. ‘At the deepest level it is in its Christian nature that the explanation of medieval society in shaping the future must lie…[for] at the heart of Christianity…lay always the concept of the supreme, infinite value of the individual soul. This was the taproot of respect for the individual in the here and now…[and] its importance can easily be sensed by considering the absence in other great cultures — Islam, Hindu India and China — of such an emphasis…In none of them was the safeguarding of individual rights to be given much attention until the coming of Western ideas’. And if this is true of what Roberts calls ‘the great cultures’, certainly it is more so of ‘the lesser cultures’, the indigenous and principally animistic societies of pre-Christian Europe, Africa, North and South America and the rest of Asia.
Relevance for Dawkins
The relevance of all this for Dawkins is the attention it draws to Christianity’s uniqueness. Moore and Roberts seem to be in little doubt that one factor above all others distinguishes Western civilisation from cultures before and after. Through no inherent virtue of race or cultural heritage and with unreserved admissions of crimes and misdemeanours like the Crusades and slavery committed en route, it still remains true that this civilisation, uniquely in history, ordered its affairs according to the ‘supreme, infinite value of the human soul’. Whatever constitutional procedures, freedom of speech, relatively high standards of living, etc., it enjoyed, it enjoyed because of the Christian faith. That it became the envy and model of the world simply reinforces the fact that it was unknown elsewhere.
We readily accept Dawkins’s strictures about ‘religion’ in general. The Bible itself endorses them — that false religion lies at the root of human misery. But Christianity refuses to be aligned like this and interposes along with its other powerful evidences the empirical reality of ‘Christian heritage’ which refuses to let Dawkins off the hook. For if his assertions are correct it would seem to follow that atheism’s displacement of religion should usher in a more humane society. But the opposite is, in fact, the case for nothing in all history surpasses the brutality of the social systems most consistently modelled upon his own atheistic world-view — Nazism and Communism. He is, of course, unhappy with this juxtaposition and tries to avoid it, but his reasoning makes it hard to conclude otherwise.
‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference…’2
‘No evil and no good’. It is the chilling logic of an atheistic worldview whether Chinese or British. And if the latter, because Western, feels less threatening right now we should recall Berlin 1936.