Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Godless Ed

Richard Dawkins regularly complains that in common (and media) discourse children are assumed to follow the religion of their parents. There's no such thing as a Christian or a Muslim child, he claims, any more than there's such a thing as a Tory child (he should have met me aged eight). Yet, as a rule, children do grow up to follow their birth religion. Even a leading candidate for the papacy, Cardinal Francis Arinze, is on record as saying that if he had been born in a different part of Nigeria he would have been a Muslim.

Atheists are unlikely to provide an exception, so it's no surprise to learn that like his brother and lifelong Communist father Ed Miliband does not believe in God. Whether he has departed in other significant ways from the faith of his cradle only time will tell. The Red Ed label, though, suggests that he may have remained closer to Ralph Miliband's beliefs than David, whose leadership ambitions were fatally undermined by his undiscarded Blairism. Psychologists may see this as anomalous: there's some evidence that first-borns tend to be more conventional in their thinking and less rebellious than younger siblings. In the Miliband household, conventional and less rebellious means hard left. Despite this, there was more than a whiff of primogeniture about David Miliband's former status; he was New Labour's firstborn son as much as Ralph's. Now he's abandoned the shadow cabinet, perhaps he will become the focus of sotto voce toasts to the Miliband over the water.

But back to God. When I Tweeted the story earlier today, Church Mouse responded by wondering if the fact that two out of three of our major party leaders are now avowed non-believers means that atheists are over-represented in British politics. I don't think so. Or if they are, they are probably less over-represented than are serious religious believers (as opposed to the apathetic majority, who tick "Christian" or whatever on the census form without much thought). And there are no reserved seats for secular humanists in the House of Lords.

In any case, Ed Miliband was at pains today to say nice things about faith and its contribution to public life. Nick Clegg's lack of personal belief has done nothing to dampen the Coalition's enthusiasm for co-opting faith groups into the Big Society (with Labour high-ups like Stephen Timms singing Hallelujah). The present government seems marginally less obsessed than its predecessor with consulting religious bigwigs (the disbanding of John Denham's panel of "interfaith advisers" is a clear indication) but Sayeeda Warsi was presumably not speaking out of turn when laid into "secular fundamentalists" on the eve of the Pope's visit. The bottom line - at least as it appears to politicians of all parties, whatever the reality on the ground - is that there are votes in championing religious belief, and few votes in rubbishing it.

This isn't the United States, however, where the beleaguered Barack Obama - once so ambiguous on the topic of religion that some hoped he was privately a non-believer - has now started talking of how he "felt God’s spirit beckoning me" when he "chose" to be a Christian. A presidential candidate would never speak openly of his lack of belief, as Ed Miliband did today. This isn't just a question of piety: in the US, atheism has long been suspect for its association with Soviet communism. Come to think of it, someone with Miliband's communist family background wouldn't stand much chance even if he claimed to be born again.