Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Christian Vandals

Stephen Tompkins' article "How much Christianity is hidden in British society?" ( for the BBC website's 'News Magazine' section, was written as a reaction to the recent appearance of Richard Dawkins on the today programme.

It is a classic example of BBC conservatism that they publish an article affirming the state doctrine, at a time when it is challenged by Dawkins and his secularists. I don't see an article in their 'Magazine' section, or any other section, making an even vaguely secularist point.

This is not a case of equal time for both views, as the Rev. Giles Fraser gave as good as he got on the Today Programme. This is a case of over-correction.

The problem I have with this article (which is featured prominently in the 'News' section of the website at this hour) is that it confuses Christianity for religion as a whole.

It assumes, for instance, that if a festival has a Christian name, it has a Christian origin. The article explains the British calender of seasons and holidays almost as if there were no time prior to Christianity being forced, by the sword, on the local pagans.

Tomkins writes "Trying to take all the religion out of it (British Culture) would be not so much like taking the raisins out of a fruitcake as like taking the chocolate out of a chocolate cake.

So here are some of the places in British society where Christian heritage can easily be uncovered." (italics added)

The word "religion" does not mean "Christianity" - a distinction he fails to make throughout the article. Taking Christianity out of our culture would be more like stripping the paint off a wall - everything would be exactly the same, but we'd call certain things by different names.

For instance, we'd admit that it's damn stupid to think Caesar would have ordered a census in December, so we'd stop pretending Jesus was born then. Henceforth, we'd call Christmas "The Winter Solstice", a festival that celebrates the birth of hope on the shortest day - hence why it was re-branded "Jesus' birthday" - and hold it four days earlier. Nothing else about it need change.

Instead of the annual confusion as to when exactly Easter is, we'd celebrate the regenerative powers of the Green Man, or John Barleycorn, on May 1st. We could take our pick from a range of different pagan folklore that has a lot more to do with eggs and rabbits than the limp 'stone' excuse Christians try to sell.

Basically, we'd stop pretending that Christianity has anything to do with the formation of our calender.

Christianity is like graffiti over the pagan painting of British culture.

Tomkins doesn't seem to understand this, or else he wouldn't have gaffed so hard with clangers like "Fear of the number 13 may have stemmed from Judas being the 13th member of the Last Supper."

Numerology is not a strong point of mine, but 13 has long been held by many different cultures as being magic in one way or another. That there are 13 cycles of the moon every 3 years or so, and therefore 13 menstrual cycles for the women folk probably has more to do with it than arbitrarily deciding Judas was number 13 at a table one time.

This explanation, from the author of "A Short History of Christianity", cannot be dismissed as merely lazy or uneducated. He must realise he is equivocating with his use of the terms 'religious' and 'Christian', that he is affirming a Christian interpretation of British history and culture; a history and culture that is deeply pagan.

This interpretation feeds from the Christian imperialism of the Middle ages and the renaissance, which sought to co-opt pagan tradition and re-brand it in order to tame and Christianise this country.

Back then, they didn't just burn the witches (doctors), they re-told the story of the year as a Christian fable and gave songs words about Jesus in place of the May Queen. They gave spurious and unbelievable explanations for why black cats and 13 are unlucky.

That the BBC is still paying people to carry out this work makes me sad. That Tomkins' article is so paper-thin in its deception offers scant consolation.

For future reference, please note: the word "Religion" does not refer only to "Christianity".

But you knew that, didn't you?


  1. Hi Lot

    Thanks for inviting me to respond to your blog. I don't usually, but I thought it was worth it.

    To clear up some things first, I'm surprised to see myself described as a "Christian actvist". I can't imagine what I've done to earn that description.

    Also, more than one of the points you make are picking up on things added or changed by the BBC editorial team. You're right that I know that superstition about 13 goes back to Balder, so I originally wrote that it "seems to have come, at least in part, from Judas being the 13th member of the Last Supper." But that nuance got lost in the mix.

    Similarly the sentence, "So here are some of the places in British society where Christian heritage can easily be uncovered", isn't mine at all. It's a fair summary of what I was saying but in fact I was careful always to refer to "religion" rather than "Christianity" throughout.

    My reason for doing so is that talk of "Christian heritage" has, for me, unhappy connotations of Islamophobia, reactionary politics and the desire to impose and privilege Christianity. I would never agree that Britain is a Christian country and should be treated like one.

    So the point of the article was to argue that Britain does not have such a secular culture as we might assume, and to list as many examples as I could fit in of religious survival. Those examples are almost all Christian, for the obvious reason that Christianity has dominated British culture for a millennium – wherever Christianity got them from in the first place.

    I thoroughly agree with you that British Christianity, in colonising a pagan population, absorbed Celtic, Norse and Roman traditions and made them Christian. I've written on the subject a number of times, and argued that Christians have no right to make a fuss about keeping Christmas Christian, as we nicked it in the first place. In retrospect it might have been nice to talk about this a little in the BBC article and make the point that these survivals of Christianity into secular Britain were originally survivals of paganism into Christian Britain, but I think it would have been a bit of a diversion, because I was commissioned to write an article that made the single point of religious survival and come up with as long a list (in 1000 words) as possible. So I wrote merely about the survival of "religion" in general.

    In listing examples I talked largely about Christianity because that is the relevant religion. The majority of examples I listed, I think, are specific to Christianity. Some (as I noted) were explicitly non-Christian – the names of days and months. Others were Christian, but derived from other religions, including Judaism as well as European religions. There's no deception or equivocation there so far as I'm concerned.


    1. Glad you saw it as worth replying to!

      I took it that you were a 'Christian activist' from your work with Ship of Fools, but it's a sort of loose bit of terminology which can be interpreted to mean just about anything. You're active and you're Christian, right?... - now who's equivocating? I'll take it out.

      It seems that the editorial team rather stuffed you, I'm afraid.

      It didn't seem to add up that someone with a background like yours would fudge these terms - something I referred to a few times.

      The unfortunate fact is that, while the PM himself is involved in an argument about whether this is a 'Christian nation', the BBC have an article up saying that Christianity is the essence of British culture - like chocolate is the essence of chocolate cake.

      That article has your name on it.

      The title of the article specifies Christianity, not religion in general. With the exception of one parenthetic nod to small 'p' paganism, Christianity is the only religion it refers to by name. There is a lack of any overt distinction between the generally religious and the specifically Christian throughout. For all purposes, those terms seem to be used interchangeably.

      While I can see, by reading parts of it in isolation, how the article you wrote would have had nuance - more how British culture is deeply non-secular, rather than of any one religious persuasion - that was fudged in what got published.

      If it wasn't, I would have agreed with you and written about something else.

      Anyway, I'm glad to have cleared that up, and hope you have better luck with your web editors in the future.

      Many Thanks,