Dear Christopher Howse
25th November 1999
As we run up to Christmas, I find myself torn as always between the pleasures I take in the familiar rituals of the season and my deep conviction that as an institutionalised religion, Christianity has been a terrible disaster. I am an unabashed atheist on purely philosophical grounds. I think that there is no God and therefore that Christ cannot be his son, or indeed any other relative. But that is not the issue here. My point is that just as Christianity might be false as doctrine but useful and attractive as an institution, so it might be true as doctrine and mischievous as an institution. But what I believe is that in fact, it is both false as doctrine and mischievous in its social effects.
Let me begin with toleration. On the whole, paganism was tolerant. Certainly no classical state tolerated views which threatened its stability, but it was happy to allow individuals to worship the gods they preferred, so long as they were not a threat to social order. The Romans symbolised willingness to admit conquered people to membership of the Roman state by admitting their gods to Rome.
It is Christianity which brought religious intolerance into the world. We must not exaggerate; the ancient world was scarcely squeamish about slaughtering prisoners, raping, looting and so on. But it did not enforce doctrinal orthodoxy and murder those who dissented from it. The concept of heresy emerges only at the point where Christianity uses the power of the state to enforce a doctrinal uniformity that argument can never achieve.
It was in revolt against Christian intolerance that the first law on toleration was issued by a Roman emperor-Julian the Apostate. Eventually, to be sure, there arose a distinctively Christian idea of toleration, one which took seriously the idea of the sanctity of conscience. But it arose only after it became apparent that neither protestants nor catholics had a serious prospect of dominating the whole of Europe and imposing their own views on the recalcitrant.
What makes the spectacle of intolerance peculiarly repellent is, however, the wickedness of the creed on whose behalf the persecutors acted. Christianity’s interest in exactly what heretics and unbelievers think is rooted in a hatred of the world and the flesh that has made enormous numbers of people pointlessly miserable. Of course, I don’t mean that you have…