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Virtues
5 min read

The corrosive effect of profuse profanity

The coarsening of speech prompts Yaroslav Walker to remember that what you say influences who you are.

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

An irate man holds a mobile phone to his ear while gesticulating with his other hand.
Malcolm Tucker makes his point.

“You breathe a word of this to anyone, you mincing f*****g C**T, and I will tear your f*****g skin off, I will wear it to your mother’s birthday party and I will rub your nuts up and down her leg whilst whistling ‘Bohemian-f*****g-Rhapsody’…right!?” 

This is my favourite Malcom Tucker line of all time. This is what Malcom might call, ‘top swearing’. The Thick of It exploded onto our screens in 2005, supposedly lifting the lid on the workings (or absolute lack of) of the twenty-first century British government. The show immortalised the sweary Scot Malcolm Tucker – supposedly partly based on real-life New Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell, and played to perfection by Peter Capaldi. The nation watched with a mix of horror and delight, enraptured by the best political comedy since Yes, Minister. However, unlike Yes, Minister, power in The Thick of It is not wielded through the obscurantist language of the elite Oxbridge-educated civil service, but through the terrifyingly unhinged and violent rantings of Tucker’s Svengali spin-doctor.  I can only assume that most people on the outside of government took it all with a pinch of salt – I certainly did. Surely, SURELY, it couldn’t be as bad as ‘that’!? 

Dipping in and out of the coverage of the UK’s COVID public inquiry showed me just how wrong I was. Civil servants and political appointees writing on WhatsApp were indistinguishable from eighteenth century press-ganged sailors in a tavern. The highlight was the testimony of Dominic Cummings, who was confronted with his use of the saltier elements of the English language: “Due in large part to your own WhatsApps, Mr Cummings, we’re going to have to coarsen our language somewhat…” the investigating KC chided. “I apologise”, was the rather phlegmatic response.  

We were then given a tour-de-force of aggressive sweariness – ministers were called ‘useless f**kpigs’, ‘morons’, ‘c**ts’, and it was suggested that in the case of civil servant Helen MacNamara he would ‘handcuff her and escort her’ from Downing Street. Upon being asked whether this language might have contributed to a lack of effectiveness in the Downing Street COVID response, Mr Cummings denied the charge – he was just reflecting the prevailing mood…but of course such language did. 

He is very clear in teaching people that the words that leave their mouths have the power to bless them or damn them. 

We live in a culture where speech, especially public speech, has progressively been coarsened. The television ‘watershed’ excludes less and less offensive speech, performative profanity is now de rigueur for many celebrities and even some politicians, and there has emerged a real generational divide between those of my generation and the baby-boomers. We appear to have forgotten a basic rule that the ancients knew all too well: affect has effect. What you say influences who you are.  

What we say, just as what we do, impacts the sort of person we become and the virtues (or lack of them) that we build up and possess. If we look to Aristotle, we are introduced the concept of habitus. It isn’t just a habit – not just an activity that we engage in on a regular basis – but is a repeated behaviour that builds up our character, for good or for ill. This idea was taken up in some form by Augustine, Averroes, Aquinas, and even people whose name doesn’t begin with the letter A. Our speech, if repeated over and over again, moulds our character. Kind speech, lovely speech, righteous speech – repeated ad nauseum – will have as their end product a kind, a lovely, a righteous person. Violent speech, aggressive speech, coarse speech, will have as their end product a violent, aggressive, and a coarse version of the same. 

Going beyond Aristotelian categories to biblical ones, the use of language is often a favourite theme. The most famous Hebrew example is perhaps the commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain…” Our speech is important to God, because it is a basic indicator of how we conduct ourselves – and so an indicator of who we are – and we ought to be conducting ourselves in the light of God’s will and God’s law: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.”  

As we move from the Old Covenant to the New, we find St Paul continuing this idea and extending the principle – our words reflect our relationship with God, and so will impact our relationship with other people (who are made in His image). He asks the Colossians that they speak ‘always with grace’, tells the Ephesians to avoid ‘filthiness…foolish talking…jesting’, and commands the Romans to always have a word of blessing ready rather than a curse. The community of holy people, living a life for God and for each other, can easily be destroyed by a cruel slip of the tongue – a fight can break out over even a mild insult. Perhaps this is why Jesus is quite so strict about speech – “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” He is very clear in teaching people that the words that leave their mouths have the power to bless them or damn them.  

Perhaps one of its recommendations could be that at the highest levels of national decision making, our leaders and officials always strive to behave with calm and considerate courtesy. 

“Do you think your description of your colleagues, the way in which you described them, their functions, their abilities, their talents, added to that dysfunctionality?” the KC asked Cummings. “No, I think the opposite…” came the slightly bewildered reply. But how could it not? How could speech that has been revealed to be so chaotic, so hostile, so unpleasant, and so callous contribute anything positive to the working environment? More importantly, and I don’t know Mr Cummings and am not making a statement on what his inner character and virtue actually is - how can it contribute anything positive to the person who utters it?  

The COVID inquiry has been set-up to teach us lessons on how to be better prepared to tackle the next pandemic. I pray that it succeeds in this aim. Perhaps one of its recommendations could be that at the highest levels of national decision making, our leaders and officials always strive to behave with calm and considerate courtesy, where speech is used to edify, support, and commend. I believe, and Scripture teaches, that if this is taken on as a vital lesson we will, not only be better prepared to steer the country through the crises of the future, but the entire tenor of our political and public life will be better – holier even. The good news is that it costs nothing to put this recommendation into practice...all it takes to get started is a kind word. 

Article
Belief
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?