Earlier this month, May, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of Edinburgh, wrote a strident article in the newspapers urging Christians to become much more aggressive against the secular society in which we live and those who encompass atheism in particular.
As I read his words I felt just a little discomforted, for while I do think there has undoubtedly been a concerted effort to push Christianity, both in its institution and practice, to the margins of our society I am not so sure about ‘targeting’ individuals simply because of their lack of religious faith. That seems to me to be both something unworthy of our faith and which could spectacularly backfire. For instance….
An atheist ‘saint ‘
Earlier this month a very special birthday passed almost unnoticed. May 7th was the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Born in Edinburgh, Hume was perhaps the brightest intellect of the Scottish Enlightenment and one-time atheist supreme.
In the 1770s, one of his young followers chalked on his house ‘St David Street’ and even today he is still affectionately referred to by that title. So, is he the secular saint of all those who would dismantle our Christian heritage, or is he an example of a Christian scholar who lost his faith ?
It is recorded that he died of bowel cancer, facing his last days with great cheerfulness and resignation, steadfastly refusing to believe in any kind of afterlife. While such a death may seem commonplace to us, back in 1776 it proved a sensation. It was a shock to many Christian believers and a happy boast for would-be atheists.
But worse, annoyingly for the orthodox – Hume not only died well, he also lived well. Though he never attained the honours his intellect might have deserved and was consistently attacked by a whole host of writers, he remained remarkably calm and polite throughout. While his philosophical works were not, at first, well received (he sensibly rewrote his main work to make it more easily understood!) his ‘History of England’ was a runaway success and cemented his literary reputation.
David Hume’s greatest legacy, however, was the quality of his scepticism. He believed that science should get on with its business observing and discerning laws in nature without worrying about unobservable ‘occult powers’ such as God. Part of me, therefore, does not rush to celebrate this philosophical grandfather of contemporary atheism. However, if we remember him for his scholarly distinction and personal integrity maybe we, too, should give thanks for the life and works of this most famous academic philosopher. Though he vigorously challenged the claims of Christianity, he also gave us the intellectual means to do the same to atheists.
He is one of the few people I would not want to persuade out of atheism – somehow it would deny the mind-stretching power of our God-given reasoning, which is itself one of the surest signs of God’s presence in the world.
Death of Osama bin Laden
And now to another very different individual.
Few people in the West would not experience a sense of relief that Osama bin Laden, the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, had been located by American forces. However, there has been a certain bitter after-taste both at his locus right under the noses of the military elite in Pakistan and, of course, the manner of his death.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said, “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as though justice is seen to be done.” Very carefully chosen words.
I cannot, in truth, say that I was traumatised by news of bin Laden’s death. For years, since the insane, evil attack on the Twin Towers of New York, he has been responsible for spreading destruction, death and terrible distortions of his own Islamic faith. That said, however, the confused and confusing reports of this event emanating from the White House did nothing to reassure the World that this action was not simply a premeditated execution. Raw revenge. Payback for 9/11.
On a number of occasions I have been asked for my reaction. For what it is worth, it is probably as confused and confusing as most peoples. I applaud the intervention of Dr Williams. He must have known that questioning the manner of bin Laden’s death was not going to win him friends. But, then, it is not the job of an Archbishop – or any cleric – to trim conviction to popular opinion. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams is in an almost unique position to say the unpopular things that need to be said – and which politicians can never say.
However, I think it somewhat naive to think that what eventually happened was not inevitable – for at least, two reasons. The first is that the military do exactly what the military are trained to do by act of Government. Special Operations, like this one, invariably take place under cover of darkness, when adrenalin is surging, the response uncertain and split second decisions have to be made. Personal safety is paramount. In such situations, whether civilian arm-chair sensitivities collude or not, when in doubt, soldiers are trained to open fire. And the second is to ask where in the world, and by whom, would Osama bin Laden have been given a ‘fair’ trial, according to law ? America ? No. Somewhere in the West ? I doubt it. In Pakistan ? What would have been done with him had he been taken alive ? Guantanamo Bay and a military trial ? Like most other people throughout the world, I don’t know the details of what the military was instructed or precisely what happened. I, too, actually feel very ‘uncomfortable’ about the death of any individual, especially in circumstances not fully explained. Fundamental to my faith is belief in the sanctity of life. However, perhaps in suggesting that Osama bin Laden was denied justice, we might be mistaking ‘justice’ for ‘mercy’ – which is quite a different concept.
Minister of Bothwell