6 min read

The moral sugar high of the protest vote

We shouldn’t give politicians bloody noses over insurmountable single issues.

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

A winning candidate at an election address the audience from a lectern while the loosing candidates look on
The victorious candidate at the Rochdale by-election.

A cat was elected as a Member of Parliament. A cat. George Galloway - former Labour party MP and Rula Lenska’s former cat - has been elected as Member of Parliament for Rochdale. The unique circumstances of the by-election make this a less surprising result than one might think. The Labour Party disowned their candidate, the Tory Party hardly contested the seat, and the sheer number of inappropriate independents meant that a split-vote victory for Galloway was entirely foreseeable. One must also note Galloway’s many skills: as a campaigner, an orator, and a dirty-tactic by-election gadfly. 

So…Rula Lenska’s cat did the unimaginable and won a seat in Parliament. How did the cat do this? He convinced people that they could vote for him to protest the current Parliamentary position on the Israel-Gaza War. In his victory speech, Galloway gave an ominous warning: “Keir Starmer…this is for Gaza.” He went on to intimate that his victory was due to the high proportion of Muslim voters in Rochdale; their disgust at the Labour Party’s response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza morphing into a wish to give Keir Starmer (‘one cheek of the same backside’ - Rishi Sunak being the other cheek) a bloody-nose. He warned that Starmer “…will pay a high price for…enabling, encouraging, and covering for the catastrophe presently going on in occupied Palestine, in the Gaza strip.” 

My fellow voters are intelligent enough to recognise that the single addition of George Galloway to the green benches will do almost nothing to affect change. They have voted so, the general consensus goes, simply to register their fury at the plight of ‘fellow Muslims’. I simply want to respond with a question. Is this moral? 

People vote for all sorts of reasons. If we believe political scientists and pollsters, voters might care about many things, but will end up voting on the basis of one thing. Normally the economy. One’s own economic interest is a perfectly rational reason to vote for one party’s promises than another. There is a potential immediate impact on our lives and those of our family and friends. But Gaza? 

Sociologists have spilt a tremendous amount of ink describing how human communities tend towards ‘tribal’ affection. We tend to feel more connected to those who are like us - in terms of geographic location, in terms of obvious racial characteristics, in terms of language and culture, of course religion. The notion that the Gazan War is a war on Muslims would be a natural driver for the Muslim community of Rochdale to vote ‘for’ their fellow Muslims.  

On the other hand, in the world of modern ethics there has been a move to recognise that such tribal allegiance is ultimately meaningless - a call to see all human beings as equally worthy of our care and attention, especially irrespective of geography. Peter Singer famously presented the thought experiment of a drowning child - if we are willing to get our shoes wet and muddy to save a drowning child we walk by a shallow pond, why aren’t we willing to give up some of our wealth to alleviate the war-stricken poverty of a Gazan child many miles away?  

The people of Rochdale must vote as their conscience requires. I simply worry that their conscience has taken on an impossible burden of care that they will struggle to sustain.

The words of Jesus seem to support such an ethic, which is always global in its vision. We are not only to love our neighbour as ourselves, we are to go out into all the world, evangelising the nations. From its beginning the Christian faith has preached that loving our neighbour means loving everyone. Everyone is a beloved child of God. Everyone is our neighbour. Surely a vote for Galloway, a vote of rage against the occupation of Gaza, is fundamentally moral - either on grounds of tribe, or rejection of tribe. Surely its Christian!  

I’m not so sure. 

I’m not so sure we fallen humans actually have the capacity to ‘care’ about the horrors that go on many, many miles away. Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, but we barely have the emotional energy to love ourselves. We live in a society of such activity and distraction - with a seemingly concomitant rise in the incidence of hopelessness and depression - that I don’t think we can really give our moral and emotional energy to an event as distant and overwhelming as the plight of Gazan civilians. We can barely give it to our families. We can barely give it to ourselves. C S Lewis once wrote that the best way of eradicating suffering was people working away quietly at limited objectives: “I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.”  

Jesus was the ultimate localist - God became incarnate as a unique individual, of a particular tribe, of a particular nation, in a particular time and place. Jesus taught an ethic of universal love and dignity and respect, but lived out in specific acts of service. He didn’t wash the feet of all Jerusalem - just his disciples. He didn’t heal all disease everywhere and forever - but he did restore sight to the few blind people he met. St Paul wrote individual letters to individual communities. Yes, he asked them to pray for him and each other, but otherwise told them to focus on their immediate needs and charity and holiness. The popularity of Jordan Peterson is largely based on the achievability of his slightly nebulous self-help worldview: make YOUR bed, keep YOUR back straight, look after YOUR family. Improve yourself first if you want to even begin improving the world. You’ll probably never manage to improve more than your village…maybe only your own household. That might be enough. 

I don’t judge those who voted for Galloway as a Gaza-conflict protest.  A new campaign, ‘The Muslim Vote’, has emerged to persuade Muslim voters to lend their support to candidates who commit to ‘Peace in Palestine’ – ceasefire, sanction Israel, and a state for the Palestinians. It is becoming clear that what appears to have happened in Rochdale may well happen in constituencies up and down the country. The idea of the ‘Muslim vote’, which Galloway was able to turn into electoral victory, is being given form and force. It is emotive and persuasive, and may well convince people who have no link to Gaza other than their Muslim faith. It is entirely possible that some of the voters have family and friends trapped in the siege. I empathise with their vote and weep for their sorrow. 

I don’t judge those who voted for Galloway as a Gaza-conflict protest. I do, however, worry that many have taken upon themselves a fundamentally unwieldy ethic. Galloway is not a one-man parliamentary wrecking ball - whatever he says. The position of the Government will not be changed by his election. The resolve of the Israeli military is unlikely to be dinted by the UK Government, no matter what resolutions the House of Commons passes. The people of Rochdale must vote as their conscience requires. I simply worry that their conscience has taken on an impossible burden of care that they will struggle to sustain. Perhaps they would be more fulfilled and more effective if they cast their vote on the basis of what could be achieved for them in their community, in the immediate future.  

We must pray for the people of Gaza, and we must not cease praying; but I would suggest that we must vote in the interests of the people of our own place, our own constituency. Giving the Labour Party a bloody nose over Gaza might be an immediate moral-sugar-high. Electing an MP who will actually work for the needs of the community in their particularity will certainly be less instantaneously thrilling - but maybe it is more moral.  

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?