On creeds

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

It’s Easter week as I write this, and an apt time, perhaps, to talk about creeds.

A creed is a formal declaration of faith: from the Latin credo, “I believe.” It is essentially a list of propositions to which one assents. whether that be the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Thirty-Nine Articles or something else. In the Christian tradition – of which industrial civilisation still partakes, by a kind of cultural inertia – we are so used to the notion of creeds that it never occurs to us to notice what an odd thing they are.

If we look at the Greco-Roman religious tradition, for instance, there is absolutely no notion of a creed. Classical Western religion was much more about what you did than what you believed: nobody would have batted an eyelid if you were a professed atheist, so long as you made the expected sacrifices to the gods. In general, most religious belief outside the Christian tradition seems to follow a similar pattern. Even Judaism is more about following rules (lots of rules) than signing up to any particular set of abstract philosophical positions.

All social primates – and you and I are no exception to this rule – are prone to assign our fellows to in-groups and out-groups. One can interpret creeds as a particularly anal way to make these distinctions: it is not easy for most of us these days to get massively worked up about the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation, let alone the whole filioque malarky, but in the not-so-distant past people died for this, sometimes in quite large numbers.

This would all be a charming anthropological curiosity, were it not for the fact that over the last century or so the same kind of thinking has started to bleed into the political sphere. The creed is ideological rather than theological, but the thought-process is identical. The obvious examples are from the Communist regimes, especially those of Stalin (the notorious “show trials”), Mao (the “Cultural Revolution”), and Pol Pot (“Year Zero”), but let us not forget Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

These examples are all from the twentieth century. Are similar things likely to occur again in the twenty-first? Well, it would take a braver person than I am to answer that question in the negative.

After all, we are all familiar with the term “culture wars.” In essence, this a process whereby each contending political group – and these are political questions if they are anything, and the groups contesting them are political groups – aserts: “Here is a list of beliefs to which all right-thinking people must subscribe. If you can tick all of these boxes, you are one of us. Otherwise, you are one of them.”

Now call me an old-fashioned liberal if you wish, but this seems to me to be deeply wrong-headed. Religious truth has always seemed to me to be a complex and variegated thing, and what is true for me is not necessarily true for you. Political truth – if one may even speak of such a thing – must be infinitely more so. The circumstances of the moment, applicable as they are only within a particular time and space, are always going to impose different constraints. It is vanishingly unlikely that any fixed list of approved truths is going to meet all the needs of the moment, everywhere all at once, and inconceivable that the same list will continue to do so indefinitely. But it is to some such creed that we will be asked to assent.

Nor will the fate of dissidents be pleasant, if historical precedents are any guide. There will be no room for discussion, let alone debate. In the immortal words of George W. Bush, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” And of course it goes without saying that We are not terrorists; They are the terrorists. (When We fire missiles into a wedding party it isn’t terrorism. It’s only terrorism when They do it. And so on.)

All this is classic social-primate stuff. The trouble is that it is likely to define our collective problem-solving process, at a time when the problems to be solved are many and difficult (and, in some cases, insoluble). Inevitably this means that we will, collectively, screw most of them up. That is the definition of political failure.

Which in turn means that it’s going to be down to us, individually, to make the best fist of it that we can. Then again, it usually is. A lot of history has consisted of peasants hearing the news of the latest royal decree, sighing, and getting on with it. Muddling through is often all you can do.

As the late Dave Allen used to say: goodnight, and may your God go with you.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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