Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Gallery (where he oversaw the Seeing Salvation exhibition) and former director of the British Museum, is one of our leading public intellectuals, so when he speaks, we should all make an effort to listen. He is shortly to launch a new Radio Four series entitled Living with the Gods, and on the subject of faith and society, he had this to say, the Daily Telegraph reports, when speaking about the decline of religion in Britain:
“We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time.”
This is certainly an arresting thought. Mr MacGregor illustrates his point by using the example of the Coronation. Back in 1953, the Coronation employed a symbolism that all could understand; the next Coronation, if it is just like the last one, will be incomprehensible to most. This point, I think, is spot on.
It is also true to say that the idea that a community can sustain itself without an underpinning narrative is a unique experiment. All societies up to now have had some communal narrative. The Ancient Greeks had that provided by Homer; the Romans that provided by Virgil’s Aeneid. The Soviets notoriously tried to do away with religion, but, and this is the crucial point, they tried to replace religion with the philosophy of Marxism, which funnily enough, then adopted many of the practices of institutional religion. In China today, the party tries to take the place that ought to be occupied by religion, which explains their obsessive hatred of Christianity. North Korea has its own peculiar creed entitled Juche. Only Britain (well, maybe the Scandinavians as well) try to run a country on empty.
What Mr MacGregor does not go on to say is that this experiment is doomed to fail. No society can ever get by without some narrative that sustains the reason for being together, and which embodies some shared code of morality. I remember trying to make this point to Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, when I interviewed him back in 2013. You might decide to run everything by purely secular rules, as laid out, for example, in the philosophy of John Rawls, the great liberal thinker of our age; but those rules and procedures will always gather around them a set of values which will cohere into a belief system. There is no purely procedural justice; justice only works when it is underpinned by a shared vision of what justice should be.
This argument has been made many times by many people, including Rawls himself, as well as the great Alasdair MacIntyre. All these arguments are summed up in a book by me, which only a few brave and hardy souls have read. But the question remains. Given that narrative vacuums are unsustainable, what is the future for Britain?
The outline of an answer is surely already apparent. The future is going to be fragmented. Given the death of the shared narrative that once bound us all together in the Coronation year of 1953, and given that we all have to have narratives of some sort to sustain us, expect a Britain of rival and isolated communities living not very happily side by side. These communities are already emerging: the Scottish nationalist community, the Welsh nationalists, the Cornish nationalists (not all at the same pace), and various strands of English particularism. In addition, we already see a Catholic community that is markedly seen as outside the national conversation, despite the best efforts of many Catholics to get us to fit in; and we have various Muslim communities that are already living as exclaves among the rest of us. Indeed, the development of political and religious exclaves is worrying, simply because when one exclave wants to talk to the other, what language are they to use, given that they share so little by way of vision and ideas?
The idea that we need a shared narrative is called communitarianism. It can take a sinister turn, and impose a group mindset that destroys individual freedom, as was certainly the case in the Soviet Union. But a Christian communitarianism will not necessarily do that, because Christianity (at least the Catholic part of it) is irrevocably committed to public reason and to toleration of difference. Those who rejoice at the demise of a publicly held Christianity may well come to lament its passing when they see what replaces it.