Matthew Parris

Beware – I would say to believers – the patronage of unbelievers

25 February 2012

This goes to print on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. So allow me to pitch in to February’s religion-versus-secularism debate from a new direction. As an unbeliever I wish to complain on behalf of serious religious belief. Faith is being defended by the wrong people, in the wrong way.

‘Faith’ means faith. Doubt is not faith. Faith is not seeking but finding. Real Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jewish believers are being patronised by kindly agnostics who privately believe that the convictions of those they patronise are delusions. A lazy mish-mash of covert agnosticism is being advanced in defence of religion as a social institution. But ‘whatever floats your boat’ is not the wellspring of Judaic belief. The God of the Gap is not the God of Islam. Jesus did not come to earth to offer the muzzy comforts of weekly ritual, church weddings and the rhythm of public holidays.

In an astonishing foray into a disgraceful sort of journalism the Sunday Telegraph now claims to have discovered that Professor Dawkins is descended from slave-owners. You make a fool of yourself, not Dawkins, with this kind of rubbish, so his critics must be blinded by anger. How to explain this?

It was a coincidence between two minor pieces of news that seems to have unleashed the media storm. First, a limited judicial decision ruled that Bideford councillors may not include prayers on their official agenda. Then survey data from the National Secular Society publicised by Richard Dawkins suggested that most declared Christians lack both knowledge of their faith and serious conviction. The surprising burst of energy this released has included interventions from the (Muslim) Chairman of the Conservative party, from Daniel Finkelstein, the Archbishop of York, Giles Coren, the Queen and Eric Pickles. All have expressed alarm at the advance of ‘militant’ secularism.

Only a minority, however, have reaffirmed with any muscularity their belief in God.


Many call themselves unbelievers. My Times colleague Daniel Finkelstein, in a moving column well summarised by its headline ‘It’s easy to mock religion — but then what?’, as good as declares himself a Jewish atheist but goes on to assert the importance of faith and religious ritual in holding people together. Affectionately he recalls fiddling as a small child with the fringes of his father’s prayer-shawl. He thinks it good (as do I) that human beings ceaselessly struggle to find meaning and purpose in life; and deplores the illiberal ‘liberalism’ that seeks to sneer at that.

Our colleague Giles Coren, in wonderfully knockabout vein, lays into Professor Dawkins (‘Nerd King, preening master of self-promotion, slippery old silver fox, “disco don” of the Dark Side, God-slayer and pompous champion of the Atheist Delusion’) and describes himself as ‘a practising Christian Jew’ who attends an Anglican church and likes it. For him, as for so many on the attack against sectarians, it’s enough that this is England and England has an established church, part of the social order, ‘a bit like pubs, really … Anyone who wants to can go in for a drink. But nobody has to get drunk.’

This does capture what a lot of us love about the Church of England. The question is, does it capture what Jesus Christ asks — requires, commands — of His followers?

One of the reasons we can be pretty sure Jesus actually existed is that if He had not, the Church would never have invented Him. He stands so passionately, resolutely and inconveniently against everything an established church stands for. Continuity? Tradition? Christ had nothing to do with stability. He came to break up families, to smash routines, to cast aside the human superstructures, to teach abandonment of earthly concerns and a throwing of ourselves upon God’s mercy.

Jesus came to challenge precisely what today’s unbelieving believers in belief so prize in what they presume to be faith: its supposed ability to ‘cement’ the established order of things, and bind one generation to the next. But the problem with using Christ as a kind of social Evo-Stik, or indeed Allah as conciliator or Jehovah as a proxy for cultural continuity, is that it saps the life force with which their faiths were at first suffused. By trying to span and bind, Anglicanism has become bland. Moderate Islam is in theological retreat. And surely it is at the liberal end of Judaism’s spectrum that faith dilutes. ‘Through thousands of years,’ says Daniel Finkelstein, ‘Judaism has sustained the Jewish people.’ I observe only that their culture is unlikely to have weathered what they’ve endured without an unambiguous belief in a supernaturally ordained destiny. If this fades, my betting would be on a diminishing cultural identification among secular Jews.

Beware (I would say to believers) the patronage of unbelievers. They want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith. It is the atheists, who think this God business matters, who are on your side.

As an unbeliever my sympathies are with fundamentalists. They seem to me to represent the source, the roots, the essential energy of their faiths. They go back to basics. To those who truly believe, the implicit message beneath ‘never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people’ is insulting. To those who really believe, it is because and only because what they believe is true, that it is good. I find David Cameron’s remark that his faith, ‘like Magic FM in the Chilterns, tends to fade in and out’, baffling. If a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind. If I seriously suspected a faith might be true, I would devote the rest of my life to finding out.

As I get older the sharpness of my faculties begins to dull. But what I will not do is sink into a mellow blur of acceptance of the things I railed against in my youth. ‘Familiar’ be damned. ‘Comforting’ be damned. ‘Useful’ be damned. Is it true? — that is the question. It was the question when I was 12 and the question when I was 22. Forty years later it is still the question. It is the only question.

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  • Martin from Oxford

    Yes, I am in complete agreement with you Matthew Parris. I am an atheist and prepared to say categorically , and argue to the death that “THERE ARE NO GODS”.

    I have responded to the likes of Andrew Brown (Comment is Free) who, just as you mention, is hostile to those who challange the integrity of religion, militant atheists etc, etc, but where he never states that there actually is a god. Never does he say he has access to divine thinking to back up his reasoning nor that anyone else has either. He seems to argue that in principal it doesn’t really matter if there is a god or not but that it is good to pretend there is.

    Basically he is an atheist but likes the idea that religion is good for others.

    • Richard, London UK


      Christians base their faith in God on the astonished reports of an empty grave and a visible body. 2,000 years ago?! Pretty flimsy maybe, but it was enough for men to be killed by lions thereafter in their surety of it

      What do you base your atheistic faith on? How do YOU know there is no God?

  • Ranmore

    “Is it true? — that is the question”

    That’s a question that can never be answered. A better question is “is it likely to be true” – to which the answer is no.

  • Nick Arrow

    “It all depends on what you mean by God”: if it’s an old bloke in the sky, who interferes in our lives and tells us how to behave,highly unlikely. But that existence is created, and sustained, by a conscious volition, is no more implausible that that it just happens by accident; and one or other has to be true!

  • David B

    I think Martin from Oxford goes a little too far in claiming that there are no Gods. Only a little, though.

    I would say that there are no gods as the term is generally understood – an entity actively concerned with the world, and the thoughts and actions of people.

    There are other concepts of God, though. Some sort of vague deism, or pantheism, or God as a ground of being or something.

    To my mind these less demonstrably wrong than, say, a creator God who made the world in a Biblical time scale, but as well as being less obviously wrong they are less important, to the point of complete irrelevance. Not the sort of God to kill for, to die for, to persecute for.

    Parris excellent as usual, and spot on.

    I sign with my usual internet handle.

    David B

  • Nick

    As a Christian, I congratulate you on an excellent article Mr Parris. I share your view of ‘soft’ faith and am reminded of the Yes Minister scene in which Sir Humphrey reminds the minister that ‘theology is merely device through which agnostics can remain in the church’.

    My one quibble is where you state that ‘doubt is not faith’. To the contrary, doubt is the very essence of faith; the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.

    I hope you do not find me offensive in saying so but I will pray for you.

  • Martin from York

    Disappointed that you describe the description of Richard Dawkins by Giles Coren (Nerd King, preening master of self-promotion, slippery old silver fox, “disco don” of the Dark Side, God-slayer and pompous champion of the Atheist Delusion’.) as ‘knock about’.
    I just find it offensive, and puerile.
    (A sign that you have lost the argument)
    Shouldn’t you be praising intellectual criticism above schoolboy name calling?
    I don’t recall hearing Professor Dawkins descending to such banality.

  • Jon Tilson

    It is quite clear that as usual Mr Paris really does get the big issue. Is it True? Jesus said I am the Truth. Pilate asked him “What is Truth”. If Jesus was not indeed the embodiment of the Truth, he couldn’t and wouldn’t have risen from the dead. The fact that he did proves he was right, and for 2000 years those of us that know him personally have been and will continue to live in the freedom that only real knowledge of the truth can bring.

  • Kimpatsu

    This article is so deeply confused. Where is the evidence that “Jesus” came at all? The only issue is not whether Xianity, or Islam, or any other superstition is comforting, but whether it is TRUE. Or does the truth not matter in journalism any more…?

  • Andy from New Zealand

    Matthew, you are profoundly encouraging to Chritians all over the world. When we speak of truth it is the sort of truth you have been asking about since you were 12 – truth, wrapped not in speculative hope but in personal revelation. Truth in a person.

    Michael from York, I’m sad to say that Dawkins has stooped far lower than the schoolboy “knockabout” you critique – you should read ore of his stuff.

  • Tom

    An excellent article and I largely agree with Mr Parris. However, I would like to point out that unbelievers arguing for the good of religion are not an entirely useless force. As a believer, yes I fully believe that truth is found in Christ. But I still believe that many of the “trappings” of my religion, despite being distorted heavily through the years, were given to us by God for our benefit, and can bless believer and unbeliever alike (one of the many aspects of God’s grace that does not require acceptance of Jesus to benefit from).

    For instance, Christianity’s promotion of self-control, charity, forgiveness etc – for a true Christian these all flow from a common source, that is our response to the grace we have received. But if non-believing commentators want to extol these virtues, I’m not going to stop them – they are no less true.

  • Graham Cresswell

    As Alan Bennett famously remarked, “the Church of England is so constituted as to allow its members to believe anything they like, but nobody much does”. As you say, the only question worth answering is “is it true?” and it’s incredible that any thinking person can be indifferent to the answer.

  • David Matcham

    ‘Is it true?’

    What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

  • James L

    ‘If I seriously suspected a faith might be true, I would devote the rest of my life to finding out.’

    As an agnostic I always believed the above applied to myself as well and questioned the true faith of those who claimed to believe but did not live the life of saints therefore risking hell. It was then pointed out to me that though I’m 50% sure it will kill me and intend to quite at some point I still smoke. Apparently faith in an inevitable outcome of even the worse sort in the future is not quite enough to make us behave better in the present. Perhaps then even if I were a believer I would still sleep in on Thursdays and indulge in greed and gluttony, postponing the ‘devote the rest of my life’ part to next week.

  • Mark O’Donoghue

    Thank you for a helpful article. You are right that the question of truth is vital and I would encourage Kimpatsu to look at the evidence for Jesus in history rather than merely assume it doesn’t exist. Why not start with Prof Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eye-Witnesses’. It will show that that there is solid ground for believing in the Jesus Christ of whom the gospel accounts speak. Such a search may expose our ignorance and our caricatures but surely they are worth losing if we find truth.

  • Uppercut

    For someone who is apparently unconvinced about religion and Christianity (and this is not the first article he has posted on the subject) Matthew Parris appears to have a pretty thorough grasp on what it truly means and what it is about as a believer. It is historically driven and so completely improbable that it is untrue – it simply could not be fabricated. The conviction of the early believers is what created the church today and this conviction ran counter to all power bases of the time and has outlasted them all. It is this conviction too that will save the church, not as a valuable social institution or part of the fabric of an idealised version of England, but as an institution that stands for and defends the truth.

  • Lyndsey Simpson

    Oh my goodness Mr. Parris. Why aren’t you a Christian? You see things so clearly.

  • Christopher Finlay

    So you want all Christians to become intolerant bigots. You are falling into the same trap that Richard Dawkins has fallen into Christianity is not a set fixed of truths valid for all time. It is something that develops as peoples understanding of God changes.

    Would you want the Church of England to have regular stoning of its members for commiting adultery or putting to death those who are gay.

    I suggest you start reading some basic systematic theology otherwise what will happen is that the church will just be left in the hand of bigots

  • Gareth Jones

    @Christopher Finlay
    I would hope that those Christians among us who do have a grasp of “basic systematic theology” would understand the distinctions between civil elements of the Mosaic Law which apply specifically to the Jewish state of Israel during the Old Testament times in which they were culturally appropriate, and the moral elements which relate to human nature which does not change.

    While no one would advocate stoning people to death in 2012, it remains the case that adultery is one of most damaging things that someone in a committed relationship could do. It can be immensely painful for the cheated partner, and a source of profound regret for those who engage it in. Less than half of marriages survive such affairs. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to have to go through an ordeal of this sort, but many do.

    The Bible is not wrong to warn against adultery, nor is it unique in viewing adultery negatively. It’s precisely because the Bible recognises that affairs are such a powerful temptation for so many people that it needs to warn strongly against their dangers. However, your systematic theological reading will also encounter the strong Biblical emphasis on grace. In the gospels, for example, Jesus sympathy towards and acceptance of notorious ‘sinners’ (of all sorts) is striking, even while he challenges the severity of their actions. This is the model that the church is exhorted to follow: hate the sin, LOVE the sinner. If anything, Christians need to do more, not less, of this, if for no other reason than that we fall prey to the same struggles and temptations as everyone else.

  • David WIlson

    The professing Christians do have to listen to Jesus voice when He says in Matthew 10: Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

    It is a way of love and Holiness lived in His power and His love on the cross and today as He lives with us.

  • david wilson

    A Christian bigot? Not if your following Jesus. That does not mean that you will live your life in a manner consistent with God’s ways – what ever your carnal desires may say to you – and encourage others to have the faith to do likewise . When you are living with God you are loved and you see the world differently and love differently.

  • graham wood

    Matthew. You ask: “Is it true”.
    I answer: Yes, of course it is true.
    There is a primary truth encaspsulated in the well attested historical fact that Jesus Christ conquered death and rose from death in his body.
    You need look no further than the New Testament and the many writers who attest this fact. Its really up to you!

  • Rebecca

    If you are looking for ‘truth’ and evidence of that ‘truth’, I can recommend reading Mark Cahill’s One Heartbeat Away: Your Journey Into Eternity. It clearly, concisely and simply goes through logical arguments about why we are here and where we will go when we die. Every open minded person truly searching for the truth will be deeply challenged by it.

  • bob

    As a truly believing Christian, I found your commentary here right on. Real Christians (and I suppose real Jews, Muslims, etc.) feel the same way. From a Christian perspective, we call these “unbelieving” believers nominal (in name only) Christians. And we don’t think they are helpful, either.


    Wonderful article – and I say that as a Believer! QUite amused that Martin from York states that Richard Dawkins does not descend to ‘the banality’ of name calling – clearly he has not read the God Delusion – or maybe his faith is blinding him!

  • Neil Rae

    As a Christian, I wholeheartedly agree with what Matthew Paris has said. I think the bit about Jesus coming to cause division needs to be taken in context but Jesus was radical and did say such things. I also agree that athiests are very often a driving force for Christians. They may flush out the half-hearted believer but they will surely stimulate REAL beleivers to grow in their faith.

  • Meg Davis

    Dear Mr Parris

    Your article was thoroughly stimulating! At the age of 21 I became thoroughly convinced of the power of Jesus as expressed in the gospels to transform my life. Not only that, over 40 years, I have found life’s journey as a committed Christian only to be of real meaning if I am prepared to be thoroughly radical and pioneering, and not mix other world views,(often so attractively and deceptively presented!) with the world view of the Bible.

    When Jesus says He is the ‘only way to the Father’ I think he means it!

    Meg Davis
    Immanuel Community

  • Paul Worthington

    Is not the ability to live in doubt essential to enlightened civilisation? The sceptic’s determination to live with unanswerable questions preferable to the fundamentalist’s desperate compulsion to believe and propogate unfoundable certainties? Not to not ask the questions, which is the coward’s way out, whether he answer yea or a resounding and unfounded nay. But to live with the question. And allow others the same. A little whimsical distance, but deep interest. And at the same time a strong determination to thwart those who impose creeds with violence.

  • simon

    “Is it true? — that is the question”

    A better question is “is it likely to be true” – to which the answer is yes. And if so, you must trust it and stake your life on it.

  • Richard S-H

    As an evangelical Christian, it’s uplifting to have what I believe so passsionately (that it matters what you believe, and it shapes your whole life) backed up by someone who doesn’t believe the same things as I do. Matthew Parris is 100% right on this. In fact – Matthew, have you thought about becoming a preacher…?

  • Eugene

    I liked what Matthew wrote about how if “a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind.” Being prepared to die or even spend years of this short life in defense of the idea that God does not exist just seems odd to me. That’s your life and energy arguing for something which you yourself decided does not exist.

  • John S

    Hmmm…interesting that Matthew’s definition of Christianity extends only to the Anglican branch. Maybe in his part of Derbyshire all the Catholics have been wiped out.

    I’d also quibble with his impression/assertion that to be devout one does not have doubts. All men and women whom I know who I would call devout (of whatever faith) confess to doubts. Graham Greene built a career out of it.

  • Brett

    Yes. Is it true, is the question.
    The notion that religion is simply good for society is a beguiling one that will ultimately result in more harm than good.
    True faith does have the most profound consequences for man, though to which few are prepared to commit.
    Life demonstrates a serious suspicion of a true faith.
    Devotion will provide the finding out.

  • Brett

    Brett from Sydney Australia.
    Yes. Is it true, is the question.
    The notion that religion is simply good for society is a beguiling one that will ultimately result in more harm than good.
    True faith does have the most profound consequences for man, though to which few are prepared to commit.
    Life demonstrates a serious suspicion of a true faith.
    Devotion will provide the finding out.

  • Dave

    I have no problem with the belief in some kind of ‘other’ out there and am sure that ‘other’ would wish us to behave in a manner religious beliefs generally proscribe. However the rituals of religion are transparently control mechanisms;ever wondered why religions and governments work together so closely. I wouldn’t mind but judging by the number of deaths caused in the name of religion the control isn’t happening.

  • Liz

    The truth is knowing Jesus isn’t about religion, its about freedom. Living by religion is arrogantly assuming it is all down to us, instead living by freedom is recognising it’s all down to Jesus. Its not about what you do but who God is. Just ask Him to show you if you want to find out.

  • Douglas

    Thank you for the excellent article Matthew. In light of your argument, I would like to know what it would take for your atheism to be shaken and for you to take seriously the possibility that one particular religion might be true. A personal encounter with God? Answered prayer? Better arguments than you have encountered thus far?

  • Karen, outside the uk

    Fantastic article, how full of passion it is! I agree that atheists and fundamental believers in Jesus are often the most similar, if only in their desperate and unceasing pursuit of what’s true.

    Also one of the more interesting views on the current secular/ religious debate.

  • Martin from Staines

    I wish to disassociate myself from the comments made by ‘Martin from Oxford’ and ‘Martin from York’ They are obviously inferior Martins – because I say so.

    There’s nothing worse than an evangelical Christian who tries to ram their religion down your throat.
    Except of course an evangelical atheist who tries to ram their religion down your throat.

    • Soo-Gin Ma

      I’d agree with you about any one trying ram anything down anyone’s throat, religion or otherwise. However, none of that should serve as a reason good enough not to seek the truth. Contrary to popular notion of the day all truths are “relative”, there is an absolute truth. Absence of evidence doesn’t equals absence of truth…

  • SteveB

    great article! As so many of the comments have stated, if you really want to know, Jesus/God are a simple prayer away.
    In 1977, I had heard all the preaching, many of the arguments, but still had no idea. So, when confronted with a challenge to a belief I’d had, I asked God directly– are you for real, is this Jesus stuff for real, or just another religious pile of …
    The response I got back was indeed life altering.
    Jesus is far beyond just religion.
    Jesus states that eternal life is to know God & Jesus. God told one of his prophets that he’d “give them a heart to know” Him.
    So, yes indeed, Jesus is as real, more so than the foods we eat, cars we drive, people we engage in relationship with and the air we breathe.
    Follow Him.

  • Mrs R.

    There is much talk of religion. I am not religious, at all. I am a Christian. That nickname was first used in Antioch, to abuse those who were living according to ‘The Way’, as taught by Jesus Christ. I am not interested in institutions or traditions. They will fail, be corrupted or fall by the wayside, or should be kicked into the long grass. Keep fresh and have Christ be your teachers.

  • Rusty Yates

    If we must have religion we should come up with a few better ones.

  • Richard, London UK

    Reading more of Matthew’s magnificent output elsewhere, I don’t think he does not want to believe, though I suspect it is convenient for him not to, at present – and especially if he thinks God is more a god of wrath than a God of life and love.

    I think instead he might simply be barking up the wrong tree. He is impressed by the fruits of faith and so studies what faith might be but, surprisingly for one so objective elsewhere, he does not seem to have an objective means of assessing whether the Christian faith (or the muslim faith etc) might be true, where it/they came from, what they rely on.

    For muslims, the basis is a series of revelations in a cave reported on to others and written down. For Christians, it is an empty tomb and then a visible body observed by frightened men with enemies on all sides, who went on to be death-defyingly bold, recording what they had seen and believed. Nor were they more gullible than we – they knew a dead body when they saw one better than we. They could find ways not to believe if they had so wanted; we all can.

    Matthew accepts that Jesus existed. Most people, and probably Matthew, believe he was killed. Then there is a fork in the road. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then, as the apostle Paul and Prof Dawkins agree, it is a waste of time – the belief then equates to Santa Claus who can still be used for good by wise parents. But if he did rise from the dead, not just resuscitate etc, that would explain everything that follows

    I encourage Matthew and others to investigate this as if their lives depended on it (!!). For me ‘Who moved the Stone’ by Frank Morison, a senior legal figure in his day, was massively influential. Possibly irritated by Christian smiles and claims, Frank set out to disprove the resurrection account and, possibly to his horror like CS Lewis, came to see their veracity and enormity.

    Dawkins knows so little about Christianity (he has a sort of school boy understanding that faith is believing something you know not to be true) that his attacks say more about him than what he attacks. But I do hope Matthew is not so ignorant or, more likely, too emotionally scarred to accept a Father

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