Column
Creed
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8 min read

Manchester City and the surprises of Grace

What a footballing dynasty's dominance tells us about the problems of meritocracy

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A football team wearing a sky blue kit leaps for joy holding a trophy.
Celebrating winning the English Premiership.
Manchester City.

So Manchester City didn’t quite win the double double. Manchester United, against all the odds, spoilt the party and created their own by winning the FA Cup. But City won the Premier League yet again. That makes six times out of the last seven seasons. It would take a brave person to bet against them doing it again next season. Supporters of other teams look on with a mixture of resentment, admiration and envy. Despite losing the Cup Final, Manchester City fans are basking in the time of their lives.

When our team wins, we football fans gloat. Especially over our rivals. We all do it. We assume it means our team is superior, that victory is deserved, that there is some kind of moral credit involved in winning. Football fans are meritocratic to a tee.  

In 2020, Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of Political Philosophy published The Tyranny of Merit. In the book, he traced the rise of the idea of meritocracy, the notion that if you succeed in life it is to your credit, and if you fail it is your fault. We talk about “going as far as your talents take you”, “getting what you deserve in life” and so on. Speaking from the American context in particular, he argues, it means a belief that we are masters of our own fate, that achievement is to our credit and failure due to our fault.  

He also sheds light on the dark side of meritocracy. The most important factor in whether people voted for Trump or Brexit was educational background. Getting into college or university meant you stood a much better chance of landing a good, well-paid job and rising through the rungs of society. And if you did so you tended to end up more liberal in political and social outlook. If you didn't go to college, you were more likely to stay in manual or blue-collar work, looking at a distance at the educated class of people who ran the government, the economy and the legal system, and feeling they didn't represent you.  

Meritocracy, Sandel argues, generates on the one hand hubris and on the other hand shame. It makes the successful feel proud in their own achievements, looking down with a secret smugness at those who didn't get the big jobs with the big money, and on the other, generates resentment and a sense of shame in those who missed out on the educational and financial gravy train.  

A meritocratic society makes parents more and more obsessive about getting their kids the advantages that will set them up for life. Yet such obsessive parenting for success has so often led to an epidemic of teenage depression and distress. College life becomes increasingly competitive, aiming to build an impressive CV to land the big jobs when you leave university for the big wide world of competition. 

Yet the reality is, he argued, that most of what made for ‘success’ was fairly random and the result of chance. If you happened to be born into an educated family with a reasonable income you are more likely to get the education that would keep you within that class. Without that origin it is much harder to break through the social barriers. Of course, there are plenty of examples of people born into disadvantaged circumstances who rose through the ranks to get good well-paid and high-profile jobs. Yet such stories fit neatly into the meritocratic story, as these people are held up as the poster boys and girls of meritocracy - exemplars of precisely the kind of moral virtue and character that is needed to succeed.

Some would say beautiful brand of football that out-passes and outplays virtually everyone else. 

Aristocracy by contrast, may have contained many flaws and inequalities, but at least the poor didn't feel that their poverty was their fault. We talk about our talents as ‘gifts’, which implies they have been given to us rather than earned by us. If we happen to have a talent for numbers, for writing, an instinct for strategy, reading people well, or managing stress, that is not really to our credit but something we have inherited in our personality. Of course we can and need to develop these skills, but again society has a fairly random way of rewarding certain talents and not others - we pay people skilled at football far more than people similarly skilled at netball, and hedge fund traders far more than nurses.

So what does all this have to do with Manchester City?

In September 2008, Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, who is currently the vice president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, completed the purchase of Manchester City, a club that had finished ninth in the Premier League the season before and was without a trophy in 32 seasons. From that moment they had the financial resources of virtually an entire Arab state at their disposal. Since then, they have spent a net amount of £1.4 billion on transfers. They hired the best manager and the best striker in the world, and play the most finely-tuned, relentless, some would say beautiful brand of football that out-passes and outplays virtually everyone else. In a recent match against Tottenham, they lost their number one goalkeeper Ederson to injury who was then replaced by Stefan Ortaga, who played a blinder and effectively won the league by keeping Tottenham from scoring. Ortega would walk into almost any other Premier League club. City’s strength in depth is such that they could almost turn out two teams that could win the Premier League on their own.

If the mind of Sheikh Mansour had gone in a different direction, Reading fans might have been celebrating a treble by the M4, or Wigan could be playing Real Madrid.

Back in the 2008 season, presumably the group from Abu Dhabi looked at the Premier League table for clubs they might buy, presumably discounting the already successful ones like Manchester United (who won the league that year), Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal. Looking just below City, they would have seen Blackburn Rovers in 7th (who had won the league as recently as 1995, Portsmouth in 8th, or a little lower, Middlesborough in 13th or Wigan in 14th. Sunderland, Bolton, Reading, Birmingham and Derby made up the numbers further down the table.

Of these teams, this past season, Portsmouth, Derby, Bolton and Reading played in the third tier of English football, struggling to make ends meet before small crowds against small clubs such as Stevenage, Burton, Fleetwood and Bristol Rovers. Birmingham were relegated into the third tier. None of the others were playing in the Premier League, let alone the Champions League.

Manchester City, by contrast, in their spanking new stadium, fresh from a season where they had won the treble (Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League), were winning the World Club Championship, marching towards another League title, only just missing out on the Champions League on penalties in the semi-final.

Did the rulers of Abu Dhabi consider buying Reading? Or Blackburn Rovers? Or Portsmouth? Whether they actually did or not, in theory they might have done. In other words, picking out Manchester City has a high degree of randomness. If the mind of Sheikh Mansour had gone in a different direction, Reading fans might have been celebrating a treble by the M4, or Wigan could be regularly playing Real Madrid.

Maybe they can teach us the humility of knowing that our success or failure is much less to our credit or fault than we think.

Manchester City is a prime example of the element of randomness in success.  Now of course it's not all random. Many other clubs have spent huge amounts of money but without the success of Manchester City. You have to say their owners know how to run a football club, unlike the shambles of the owners of clubs such as Chelsea or Manchester United in recent times.

Yet there is undoubtedly an element of sheer chance, luck, or to put it in Christian terms, undeserved Grace about it. Manchester City’s being chosen by Abu Dhabi is a strange worldly echo of the Christian doctrine of Election (no - not that election!). This is the idea that in the Bible, God chooses a part out of the whole, for example choosing Humanity out of all the species of animal life on the planet to look after and care for it, choosing Israel out of all the nations of the world to bear the message of God's care and love for that world, and choosing the Church as God’s chosen people, to bear witness to Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world.

The difference in this Christian notion is that election is never for success. God does not choose humanity, Israel or the church so that they can outstrip all the others and bask in their own superiority, even though all three have fallen into the trap of thinking that way many, many times. God chooses them precisely so that they might be a blessing to the rest of the world, the channel through which God desires to pour out his goodness to everyone, the bearers of a message of good news that everyone needs to hear. Election therefore breeds not a sense of superiority, but a deep sense of humility at having received a status that was not earned, undeserved, but that carries great responsibility.

So Manchester City's triumphant progress is perhaps an object lesson for the rest of us, that any success we may have achieved in life, anything we are tempted to boast about, whether privately or publicly, is not as much to our credit as we think. Just as they were plucked from mid-table obscurity to become one of the great teams of recent times, while the likes of Reading and Wigan languish in mediocrity, a large part of any success that may have come our way, is not down to our credit, but derives from a gift, something bestowed on  us, so that we might use whatever good comes our way to raise up others and be a blessing to those who don’t have such fortune.

While Manchester City win everything (and it won’t last, as we Manchester United fans know only too well) maybe they can teach us the humility of knowing that our success or failure is much less to our credit or fault than we think. We can learn generosity to those less fortunate than we are, contentment when things go badly, and gratitude for the grace that we have neither deserved or earned.

Explainer
Belief
Creed
7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.
UnHerd.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.