Snobbery with godlessnes
The new atheism could become a mark of class distinction here, as it is in the US.
Friday September 25 2009
Heresiarch’s consideration of where Jesus would shop made me wonder whether the new atheism was not becoming a class marker in this country. It’s obvious that in the US, the new atheism is a reassuring fundamentalism for the college educated: it provides them with the assurance of a brighter future and with an enemy (“The religious”) on whom can be blamed all the bewildering and humiliating changes in modern American society which are now beginning to grind down the professional classes just as they have already crunched up the working class. But are we going to see the same pattern here?
Educated atheism is of course an entirely middle-class phenomenon. If you turned off the soundtrack, it would be impossible to distinguish a meeting of the British Humanist Association from the Quakers or an Anglican discussion group. There is nothing like compulsory chapel to produce a superior atheist.
But in this country, unlike the US, the poor are not devout. They’re hardly atheist on principle; they just reckon that “it’s all rubbish”, along with every other system of organised thought. This means that not going to church does not function in itself as a class marker here in the way that it works in the US.
On the other hand the educated and professional classes, to which the new atheists belong alongside the clergy of the Church of England (as I do), are losing influence, power and job security just as much here as anywhere else in the world. Who are we going to blame, apart from Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair? How can we maintain the distinction, so essential to civilised life, between ourselves and the readers of the Daily Mail?
The new atheism supplies a clear and simple answer. Subscribe to a set of pious hopes about reason and progress, read a few of the right books, and you have found a clear social identity. It offers a set of enemies who are both harmless (when they’re Christians) and sinister (when they’re Muslims). Obviously, it is no longer done to sneer at the working classes for being idle, brutish, smelly, and breeding too much. But it’s perfectly OK to sneer at “faith heads” for all these things: that shows you’re enlightened. It’s pure coincidence that the despicable believers are for the most part lower class as well.
None of this has anything to do with the existence of God, of course, nor even with philosophical argument. But so what? Social movements work for social causes more than intellectual ones; Christians will tell you that the gospel must always be inculturated and this is just as true of the anti-gospel. There is a dramatic and performative element to atheism just as there is to religion, and one of the functions of this performance is to establish your position in the social hierarchy.
But there is more to this than the new atheism merely becoming a substitute for Anglicanism. The Church of England itself has always been a body of surprising social reach. Although its clergy are quintessentially upperish middle class, they don’t have to be born that way. None of the last three Archbishops of Canterbury were. Robert Runcie was the son of a ship’s hairdresser; George Carey was a secondary modern boy from Dagenham, and even Rowan Williams came from the less fashionable quarters of Swansea. But they all ended up in the House of Lords. For all of them, the Church was the essential means of social mobility and it has functioned that way for a surprising number of priests today.
And the church of England has far deeper and closer contacts with the poor than any other middle class institution. The parish system ensures that the vicar feels, or should feel responsibility for everyone in the community. It may prove unsustainable in the long run, but for the moment it is astonishingly efficient. If I want to know what is going on somewhere I will ask the parish priest before quizzing the trainee who is all the staff left on the local paper.
It is entirely possible that Ariane Sherine’s book on enjoying an atheist Christmas will sell this Christmas; but come the New Year, it won’t be found on the bookshelf in the toilet but in lavatories nicely warmed by Agas.