4 min read

Claims of institutional racism let politicians off the hook

They need to be mindful of something else baked into our institutions.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A TV roundtable discussion with five people against a backdrop of Parliament.
Politicians and pundits discuss the Lee Anderson issue.

Racism charges have recently divided very neatly along political lines. Tearing chunks out of each other at the Despatch Box, prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have both bet their houses by playing the race card on each other. 

Starmer claims the Conservative Party wallows in Islamophobia, having withdrawn the whip from its former deputy chairman for stating publicly that Islamist extremists control the Mayor of London. For his part, Sunak, yah-boos back that Labour didn’t have a runner in the Rochdale by-election, after suspending its candidate for peddling an anti-Israel conspiracy theory.  

Rochdale was duly won by the famously pro-Arab former Labour MP George Galloway. Sunak wants us to hold that Labour is as antisemitic as it was under Jeremy Corbyn.   

So there we have it. Labour is antisemitic and the Tories are Islamophobic (not a good word, but the currency of the moment). Pick your prejudice and vote accordingly at the general election. 

Whatever the validity or otherwise of these claims, it’s in the interest of both parties to accuse their opponents of being rotten to the core with these attitudes. It doesn’t really work for them to claim that Sunak personally is an Islamophobe or Starmer an antisemite.  

This has to be about the whole political parties over which they preside. It’s really about institutional racism. So when a Conservative MP, Paul Scully, has to apologise for calling some parts of Birmingham and London “no-go areas” for non-Muslims, it’s taken as a reflection on Conservatives as a whole.  

Similarly, it’s an insufficiency to criticise particular journalists for their reporting bias; a former BBC director-general has to call the entire corporation “institutionally antisemitic.”  

The apartheid governments of South Africa were systemically racist, the Conservative and Labour parties – and the BBC which reports on them – are not. 

I have a big problem with these generalisations. The political parties contain racists of both kinds, antisemitic and Islamophobic, as well as very many members of no racism at all (thankfully). And I happen to know from personal experience that the BBC operates an informal policy of equal-opportunities bigotry – there are as many Islamophobes as there are antisemites in the organisation, though together they amount to a small minority (again thankfully). 

There is, consequently, no institutional racism in these places of work, though they are all rich in the employment of racist individuals because, alas, so is the world. 

Institutional racism was a term coined in the Sixties, but it really only gained traction as an indictment of the Metropolitan Police in 1999’s Macpherson Report into the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence. 

I was uneasy with that terminology then and remain so now. Police officers are (or can be) racist; the constabularies for which they work are not. If they were so, they would train their officers to be racists – and they didn’t and do not.  

Their training may have been rubbish in all sorts of ways, but there is a world of difference between omission and commission. The apartheid governments of South Africa were systemically racist, the Conservative and Labour parties – and the BBC which reports on them – are not. 

Our politicians might be mindful of that, whatever their faith or none. And they might like to note some of the imperatives of its teaching 

Two matters stem from this. The first is simply that individuals are responsible for racist attitudes, not the organisation for which they work, although those organisations have a duty to call out racists in their midst. 

The other is to recognise what we are, institutionally and systemically. The UK’s uncodified constitution has two Churches established in law, the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The monarch is the supreme governor of the former, as well as head of state. 

That is simply the way it is and, this side of disestablishment of the Church, it follows that (in England and Scotland at least) we live in a Christian country, however few of its inhabitants now attend its churches. In short, Christianity is baked into our systems and institutions. 

Our politicians might be mindful of that, whatever their faith or none. And they might like to note some of the imperatives of its teaching: care for the afflicted in the story of the Good Samaritan; the welcome of strangers in the report of the Syrophoenician woman who seeks crumbs from the table; the love of neighbour; Paul’s universalism. 

This (and much else besides) is meant, in law, to define who we are. We might expect an elected servant of the state such as Lee Anderson, the Tory suspended from his party for claiming a Muslim power grab of London, or Azhar Ali, the Labour candidate similarly booted out for claiming that Israel conspires to murder its own citizens, to know something of the national creed that defines our parliamentary democracy. 

That parliament doesn’t contain institutionally racist parties, any more than the BBC or our police forces are systemically racist. Rather, we should hold individuals to account, whoever they are. Because, ultimately, claims of institutional racism let individuals off the hook. Institutional Christianity does not.   

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?