Melanie Phillips

19 December 2005

Faith works

Published in: Daily Mail

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As people rush around buying last minute Christmas presents and putting the finishing touches to the tree, some will be uneasy - as ever - that the sound of church bells is being drowned out by the din of ringing tills and that the essential Christian message of Christmas is being lost in the annual tidal wave of consumerism.

Others are going to great lengths to submerge the message of Christmas completely by removing it from municipal displays or school assemblies in favour of the meaningless multicultural monstrosity of 'Winterval'. This is being done to spare the feelings of other faiths - who are merely baffled, since they expect Christmas to be celebrated in Britain and feel disappointed when it is not.

Still others fume that any mention of religion is an affront, and even mount a secular crusade against the film version of Narnia on the basis that CS Lewis's children's fantasy is a Christian allegory and so may poison children's minds by getting them to believe in religion.

And religion, they say, is a source of bad things in the world such as irrationality, brainwashing, hatred, prejudice and violence.

It is true that religion has been a source of tyranny, war and terrorism. Religions carry within them the capacity for bad as well as good - and some have rather better records than others in suppressing the former and expanding the latter.

When any religion believes it is the only path to truth, it follows that it cannot live with other peoples' truths and the results are often bloody. How to reconcile religious convictions with the need to tolerate other people's beliefs is a dilemma with which religion has to struggle.

But it is short-sighted to think that a world without belief would be a world without such problems. Secularists think that only scientific reason opens the door to freedom, tolerance and a better world.

But this is an unbalanced view. Some of the most intolerant people around are secularists who want to suppress all religious utterances. Their belief in their own 'truth' is as dogmatic and illiberal as any religious inquisition.

Some of the worst tyrannies in history have been irreligious. Think China, the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. And intellectuals have been among their most prominent supporters, demonstrating that the more highly developed the power of reason becomes, the less this is a guarantee of human decency or even simple common sense.

One of the most striking features about the human race is the way the religious impulse endures in all societies. Secularists scorn it as a crutch - Marx sneered that it was the 'opium of the masses' - but that doesn't explain why all peoples have a need to believe in something beyond themselves.

Religion lies at the heart of our society's greatest achievements because it enables the human spirit to soar. Western civilisation was created by Christianity. It was this that gave us the greatest artistic achievements of that civilisation --Paradise Lost, the Sistine chapel, Chartres cathedral or the works of Bach, which have been delighting Radio 3 listeners anew as they are played in their entirety in the run-up to Christmas.

It is also this Judeo-Christian heritage that has given us the values we hold so dear - including the values that secularists prize, such as human rights and tolerance.

Religion gives us a code to live by which helps make us better people. Secularists claim they can do that without religion. But their values are inescapably shaped by the society in which they live, whose own principles ultimately derive from these religious precepts.

The value we in the west place on every individual and on the principle of equality is based on our foundation religious doctrine that we are all created equal in the image of God.

From that doctrine sprang not only the moral codes of obligation to each other without which society would not exist, but also the principle of individualism which lies at the heart of freedom.

This individualism was the motor behind the development of our liberal society, which separated religion and state and thus institutionalised the notion of separate public and private spheres which guaranteed our liberty within the law.

This in turn gave us our notion of human rights. The paradox therefore was that, while liberalism was a reaction against the excesses of clerical power, the principle of human rights at its heart could not have existed without that particular religious tradition.

At best, religion plays a vital role in tapping into the desire to make ourselves into better people. It is only religion that enables people to transform themselves for the better. That is because it offers the crucial elements of hope and structure, which provides both a blueprint and a support for what is often a very difficult and discouraging process.

That is why the great social reform movements of the 19th century arose from evangelical Christianity. The monumental campaign against slavery, which in turn gave rise to a host of other progressive movements such as women's rights, temperance and prison reform, was instituted by Christian activists. It could only have been promoted by people whose religious faith gave rise to outrage at slavery's wholesale denial of human dignity.

And that is why modern social programmes attempting to deal with problems such as drug abuse or criminality tend to achieve much better results if they have a religious framework.

Some of the most spectacular examples have occurred in America. The InnerChange programme in jails, for example, which immerses prisoner volunteers in an intensive Bible-based programme for 18 months prior to their release, has dramatically slashed recidivism rates. Secular critics throw up their hands in horror at such 'brainwashing' but the fact is that it seems to work.

Or take the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalisation in Washington. Run by devout Christian Charles Ballard, it turns drug-fuelled violent gangsters into responsible fathers and law-abiding, employed citizens by getting them to rethink and re-invent their entire lives. It manages this because it uses faith not to preach but to offer the possibility of personal transformation.

In Britain, there are similar faith-based projects achieving similar results. A Derbyshire poultry farm, Highfields Happy Hens, has been turned into a Christian vocational training centre for young offenders and excluded pupils. It claims to produce one of the lowest re-offending rates of any young offenders' programme in the county.

Yet the authorities are deeply hostile to any mention of faith. According to the Christian pressure group Faithworks, the local council and the Home Office want to replicate the Highfield Happy Hens model - but without the Christianity that defines it.

Countless other religious progammes up and down the country have run into similar resistance from authorities which want the excellent results but not the element of faith that is so vital in producing them.

Our society tends to run away from religion as a threat to personal freedom. But in worshipping instead at the shrine of consumerism, we have created a technocratic and managerial void at the heart of our civilisation which has left many bereft, bewildered and bruised.

The authentic religion of this country is probably one of the best person-rescue services there is. It should be properly celebrated. Happy Christmas.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie