“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”
This is a remarkable conversation with the historian Niall Ferguson on the need for Christianity, along with some fascinating reflections on the journeys of other public intellectuals like Roger Scruton, Douglas Murray, Tom Holland and Jordan Peterson. (There are echoes too of Matthew Parris’s Times column on Saturday, in which he argued that human rights are neither fundamental nor unalienable without a Christian foundation.) I was struck by this line in particular: “Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: ‘We need Christ.’ What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: ‘I need Christ.'” Have a look:
“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” [Ferugson] said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”
For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.
Scruton’s friend Douglas Murray, the conservative writer who was raised in the Church before leaving it as an adult, has occasionally referred to himself as a “Christian atheist.” In a recent discussion with theologian N.T. Wright, he described himself as “an uncomfortable agnostic who recognises the virtues and the values the Christian faith has brought,” and noted that he is actually irritated by the way the Church of England is fleeing from its inheritance, “giving up its jewels” such as “the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer” in exchange for progressive pieties. “My fear is that the Church is not doing what so many of us on the outside want it to do, which is preaching its gospel, asserting its truths and its claims,” he said. “When one sees it falling into all the latest tropes one thinks well, that’s another thing gone, just like absolutely everything else in the era. I’m a disappointed non-adherent.”