The Right Coast

December 31, 2005
Blood and Fire
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Roy Hattersley was a Labour Party politician in England from the late 1940s until he retired in the 1990s. He wasn't, perhaps, the world's most inspiring politician, but he has blossomed as a writer in the past few years. He has written a biography of William and Catherine Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army, and although Hattersley is a socialist and an atheist, he is impressed by the Army. Writing for the left-wing Guardian, he points out that "the unpleasant tasks that relieve the pain and anguish of the old, the sick and the homeless [are] the tasks in which the Salvation Army specialise", that in fact almost all the groups doing this kind of work "have a religious origin and character", and that when it comes to practical help for the people who need it most -- well:
Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations - the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.

Civilised people [i.e. Guardian readers] do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags and - probably most difficult of all - argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment. Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists.

The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand. The close relationship may have something to do with the belief that we are all God's children, or it may be the result of a primitive conviction that, although helping others is no guarantee of salvation, it is prudent to be recorded... as "one who loves his fellow men". Whatever the reason, believers answer the call, and not just the Salvation Army. When I was a local councillor, the Little Sisters of the Poor - right at the other [i.e. Catholic] end of the theological spectrum - did the weekly washing for women in back-to-back houses who were too ill to scrub for themselves.

It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian... Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night.

The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.
Hattersley's reflections might be worth keeping in mind when considering whether Christian ideas -- or ideas with even the slightest whiff of having been inspired by Christianity -- are so uniquely toxic that they (alone of all ideas that you might think silly or uneducational) should be hunted down and extirpated by judicial decree from the public schools.

As a Labour politician, by the way, Roy Hattersley used to be on the receiving end of British political satire, which takes few prisoners. Wikipedia's shrewd bio of Hattersley reports that, having "a slight problem with sibilants", Hattersley was was routinely "portrayed on the satirical television puppet programme Spitting Image as someone who showered his audience with saliva each time he spoke".
Hattersley was also attacked by the satirical television programme Have I Got News For You in 1993. He was booked several times to appear on the show, but after his repeated failures to honour the booking his place was taken by a tub of lard, to which the other participants addressed comments and questions as though it were Hattersley himself.
Christian charity is one possible response to that sort of thing.