The Rewriting of History by Christian Apologists

This essay is based on the talk I gave to the Hastings Humanists on 9 February 2012. The idea for the talk was prompted by a letter in the November-December 2011 issue of New Humanist magazine from Canon Michael Halliwell of Romsey, in which he claimed that "Christian churches have a long history of building responsibly what David Cameron today calls the Big Society". He followed this claim with numerous examples, which many readers would have recognised at once as special pleading. However many other readers I suspect may be unfamiliar with the history and I was surprised that there has not been any attempt in the magazine to counter the impression given by the Canon's 'Blast'. So this essay was written as a detailed response to the letter.

The rewriting of history by Christian apologists is of course a well established christian tradition, known in extreme cases as "Lying for Jesus", though of course in most cases it is sufficient to be "economical with the truth". It does not seem to trouble the christian conscience that this manipulation of the truth contravenes at least the spirit of the commandment about not bearing false witness. Of course it is also possible to "Lie for Humanism" but since Humanism is all about facing up to the facts of the world as it is, and applying reason, such a procedure is inherently damaging to the cause. So please don't be tempted to do it!

A curiosity about the people the Canon lists as christians is that they are all very different types of christian. Lord Shaftesbury for instance, who helped to pass Acts of Parliament improving working conditions, at one time considered William Booth of the Salvation Army to be the Antichrist! Also it is not clear in many cases whether their religion was relevant to their deeds, or just incidental. Quite often the organisations they set up were secular, and the forces that propelled them into the work were direct experience.

Hospitals. The Canon's first claim is that "Christians built and staffed our first hospitals, the title "sister" derives from this fact". This is true enough, possibly the earliest hospital in England being a place for treatment of Lepers recently unearthed in Winchester and dating from before the Norman conquest. However, who else was there to do this work at the time but the established religious institutions? It was impossible to be an open atheist or pagan on pain of death, and even to mildly question the orthodoxy was to be branded a heretic. For instance one of the tasks given to Alcuin by Charlemagne around 790 was to defend the doctrine of the "Trinity" against the "Adoptionist" heresy which maintained that Jesus was not the actual Son of God but was adopted as his son because of his goodness; an eminently sensible interpretation one would have thought. However it seems Alcuin persuaded Charlemagne to abolish the death penalty for paganism in 797. The first Heresy Act in English law appears to be that passed by Henry IV in 1401.

Hospitals, as the name suggests were originally "places of hospitality". For the extended treatment of a large number of patients a large building would be necessary, and those available were temples. This was the case in Egypt and Greece, associated with the name of Asclepius (Aesculapius in Latin) who came to be regarded as a minor deity. In India hospitals were funded by rich merchant families and by rulers such as Ashoka. Of course in the past there was often little difference between a hospital and a hostelry. The medical efficacy of hospitals today is based on centuries of development of medical science. If we are allowed a little bit of special pleading I would point out that the first hospital in the North American colonies (as they then were) was built in 1751 largely through the political and fund-raising efforts of who else but Benjamin Franklin, on behalf of his friend Dr Thomas Bond, in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.

The Canon inevitably mentions the work of Florence Nightingale in the care of war wounded in the Crimean war, but this has been overly romanticised. The death rates in fact rose in the camp at Scutari where she worked, due to poor hygiene. The actual medical care on the battlefield by Mary Seacole was more effective. Oddly enough after the war Florence Nightingale founded the first secular nursing school in the world, at St Thomas's in London in 1860. Also her religious views were unconventional: she questioned the goodness of a god who would condemn souls to hell.

The Red Cross. The Canon also cites Henry Dunant, as founder of the Red Cross. He certainly had a Calvinist background, since he was brought up in Geneva, but the idea for an international, non-sectarian organisation came from his experience at the battle of Solferino, where as a businessman he was able to effectively organise the local humanitarian effort. The Red Cross was set up by a five-man committee of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, including a jurist, a general and two doctors, and the red cross symbol derives from a reversal of the Swiss flag, signifying neutrality rather than christianity.

Education. The Canon also claims that christians "pioneered education for all, and church schools today are largely over-subscribed". Here he is on distinctly shakier ground. Education for all, as embodied in the 1870 Education Act, came as the result of a century-long struggle, which was opposed by the church, which had something of a monopoly on such education as there was. It was impossible for a teacher to set up a school without the blessing of the local bishop, who also had control over what could be taught. People like Robert Owen and Lord Henry Brougham tried numerous times to get a bill for general education passed between 1820 and 1839 but were defeated in parliament, where all the MPs were anglican christians, non-conformists not being allowed to stand, until the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (which had been in force since the 1660s) in 1828.

Slavery. The Canon is also on very shaky ground when he claims, citing the sainted name of William Wilberforce, that christians "pioneered the abolition of slavery". Wilberforce himself was essentially only the eloquent mouthpiece inside the anglican parliament of the many antislavery reformers who were often quakers and nonconformists, while many of the most vocal pro-slavery propagandists were christian churchmen. One of the earliest to argue against slavery was Tom Paine on his first arrival in America in 1775. It was Wilberforce's Society for the Suppression of Vice that prosecuted the publishers of Paine's "Rights of Man" such as Richard Carlile.

Working Conditions. The Canon commends Lord Shaftesbury as pioneering "care of factory workers". He did indeed pilot the factory acts of 1847, 50 and 59 through parliament but as with Wilberforce he was the spokesperson for a whole range of concerned people who were excluded from the legislature, and was carrying on the reforms of Robert Owen, pioneered in his own factories when Shaftesbury was merely a child.

Poverty. The Canon cites William Booth as a pioneer of care of the poor. He was an evangelical preacher who taught that eternal punishment was the fate of those who do not believe the gospel of Jesus christ. The Christian Mission that he set up was just one of about 500 charitable and religious groups trying to help the poor and needy in London's East End in 1865. In 1878 it became the Salvation Army.

Hospices. Another name cited by the Canon is that of Dame Cicely Saunders for her work on hospices for care of the dying. However she was not alone in establishing hospices. Indeed the religious associations she brought to it may have held back the movement. Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross worked on the social responses to terminal illness at the same time and wrote an influential book On Death and Dying in 1969. Florence Wald, the dean of Yale School of Nursing also influenced the work. The issues of how to come to terms with death have been the subject of humanist philosophy, art and literature dating back to earliest times.

The Canon also mentions that "Christians also founded the first almshouses for the elderly". They apparently date back to King Athelstan, but still only provide accommodation for a few thousand people. They are a form of sheltered housing, which is now usually controlled by housing associations and local authorities.

Two other names mentioned by the Canon are perhaps less familiar. First, Eglantyne Jebb who founded Save the Children. This was originally for German and Austrian children after WW1 in 1919. It is known for its international, professional and nonsectarian approach, based on methods she learnt while at the Charity Organisation Society, which aimed to bring a modern scientific approach to charity work and "to root out scroungers and target relief where it was most needed" as they put it.

Feminism. The Canon has the gall to claim that christians pioneered "the cause of feminism and the protection of prostitutes" citing Josephine Butler, but she was far from alone in opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, which allowed magistrates to order medical examination and imprisonment of prostitutes. This was a strong civil liberties issue that aroused widespread concern. It set off a debate over the double standards between men and women, and was one of the first political issues that led to women organizing themselves and actively campaigning for their rights. Christians were of course on both sides of the argument.

Wolfenden Report. Finally, and inexplicably, the Canon claims that "it was the Church of England's "Wolfenden Report" which paved the way for the decriminalisation of homosexual practices." As far as I can ascertain the Wolfenden Report was nothing to do with the Church of England, it is named after the committee chair, Sir John Wolfenden, and stemmed from a Royal Commission charged to investigate Britain's laws on homosexuality after a series of highly publicized prosecutions of individuals for homosexual acts. The report did not condone homosexuality, but saw the laws then in force as violations of civil liberties. The report also found that "homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease".

Very similar claims on behalf of christianity were subsequently made on Newsnight by Michael Nazir-Ali the former Bishop of Rochester.