Secular society is like a plant without roots

Tristram Hunt, MP and historian, says identity rests partly on tradition (Photo: PA)

Two rather good articles struck a chord with me in the past week. The first was from the ever excellent Scottish (and Catholic) commentator Kevin McKenna, over at the Guardian, entitled “Why I am proud to be a Christian and a socialist”.

This is what he has to say about his family’s synthesis of faith and life:

The Christian narrative gave them a sense of their place in time and history and told them that they were so much more than mere flesh and blood and that there was much more to their existence than all that which they could merely touch, see and hear. This told them that tyrants, despots and juntas would never enslave them or possess them. Socialism gave them an opportunity to carry the teachings of their saviour into the secular marketplace where charity, compassion, equality and the dignity of work similarly underpinned the trade union movement and the Labour party.

The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the universal declaration of human rights were all linked seamlessly and, in this way, they could construct bridges that allowed them to cross from the spiritual to the temporal and back again. Thou shalt not kill; blessed are the peacemakers; all human beings are born free in dignity and rights.

I love his use of the word “narrative”. For me, this hits the nail on the head. Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, gives us the unifying thread to our lives. It tells us why we are doing what we are doing. It provides an anchoring motivation for all our talk about justice and fairness, for example. I have written a book about narrative, parts of which can be read online for free, which is a study of the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre among others. McKenna is thinking in MacIntyrean mode, and so should we all. We need to consider the narratives that sustain our actions. I have the feeling that many of us are running on empty – in other words we act, but our actions are atomic and freestanding rather than rooted in history and community. McKenna also makes the excellent point, by the by, that the socialist movement in these islands is, or was, firmly rooted in Christianity. Now it has abandoned those roots. What happens to plants without roots?

A similar train of thought is evoked by Tristram Hunt, the historian and MP, who has written an article on “The Importance of Studying the Past”, pithily summed up (with a link to the original) by Paul Lay here.

Hunt and Lay are acutely aware of the concept of identity resting on community ties, ties that are shared not just with contemporaries, but across time; in other words tradition – another key concept in the work of MacIntyre, as it turns out. Because we know less and less of the past, we know less and less of ourselves, and who we are. Our identity as individuals and as a nation is becoming blurred, with, I think, disastrous consequences.

Once Britain was a Christian nation, and no one seriously disputed this; this meant that British people had a clear sense of themselves and their place in the world, rather like Americans still do. The Left may well not warm to someone like General Gordon, that archetypal Victorian; but we can legitimately ask, now that we have become secular, what is the foundation of our identity? Now that we have abandoned our Christian roots, what sustains us? It is not enough to say that it is secularism itself – secularism, I would humbly submit, needs to be underpinned by some other broader philosophy. Marxism, whatever its faults, and they were many, gave secularism a raison d’etre. What are the rites of secularism, what are its narratives, where are its ceremonies? Can human beings really live without these?

I am not saying we should have religion because it is socially useful; I believe in religion because it is true; but without religion, where is the tie that will bind us all as one?