Our Society Worries Constantly about Equality, Yet It Disavows the Ultimate Source of that Equality

by Andrew Alexander The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.

Image shows the Good Samaritan tending to an injured traveller.The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Giacomo Conti

The howls of derision and outrage which greeted the British Prime Minister’s assertion of a belief in the Christianity of his country and of its value were depressingly predictable.

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Mr Cameron’s profession of faith “fosters alienation and division in our society” according to the signatories of a letter to the Daily Telegraph the following week, including Sir Terry Pratchett, Mr Peter Tatchell and Mr Dan Snow, a television presenter. The organiser of this letter called Mr Cameron’s remarks “disturbing” and “wrong”. It is worth noting that the article which drew this ire makes as its very first point an immediate concession of any Christian claim to exceptionalism. As the Prime Minister wrote:
[pullquote]those professing atheism do not seem to disbelieve in God so much as they seem to hate Him.[/pullquote]“Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none – and we should be confident in standing up to defend them… Many atheists and agnostics live by a moral code – and there are Christians who don’t. But for people who do have a faith, that faith can be a guide or a helpful prod in the right direction – and, whether inspired by faith or not, that direction or moral code matters.” It is hardly the stuff of a Papal Bull which is what makes the reaction even more interesting. One of the identifiable characteristics of what I shall call the public-facing atheist is that they do not appear to disbelieve in God at all. Their reaction to any profession of the Christian faith, no matter how, in Mr Cameron’s words, “woolly” it is, reveals a depth of feeling which it would be impossible to sustain were one satisfied that the subject of one’s hatred was imaginary. It is, then, an oddity of the present public discourse on religion that those professing atheism do not seem to disbelieve in God so much as they seem to hate Him.

Image shows a necklace with the Hogwarts crest on it.
Would the same reaction have occurred if Cameron had expressed a profound belief in the world of Harry Potter?

I suspect this point will not find support with the reader. If that is so, then try this thought experiment. The atheist proposition is that God is an imaginary character, the star of an important work of fiction with a certain anthropological value but no explanatory power. An equivalent figure might be Just William or Harry Potter or the Aztec Moon Goddess or whatever makes personal appeal. Imagine now that the Prime Minister said that he was a devotee, albeit one who did not attend séances or otherwise exhibit any discernable sign of faith in public office, of the Moon Goddess. It would be very hard to be angry about such a thing. It would be funny. We are only capable of summoning sustained hatred and disgust for the real, not the fictional, and this dreadful rage against God seems to me to be an important acknowledgement of His existence.

Equality as a Christian inheritance

Nevertheless, there is a political point in this argument, too. The most important political theme since the beginning of the decline in public faith, undoubtedly a feature of accelerating importance since the First World War, has been that of equality. Every major political party in the Western hemisphere now couches its arguments and presents its actions through the prism of equality and, consequentially, of community. This is directly linked to the decline of religious faith, and any discussion of equality should (but rarely does) begin with a discussion of the equality surrendered by the irreligious if it is to understand why equality is such an important, such an unchallenged, article of faith in modern democracies that the only discussion is between types of equality (opportunity or outcome) and not over the validity of the concept.

Image shows the 16th century German artist Peter Gertner's painting of the Crucifixion.
Christians believe that the Crucifixion enables all Christians to seek salvation equally.

Why is this? In a Christian system, each person is possessed of an immortal soul capable of salvation. Each soul is equally important in the eyes of God, and the sacrifice of the Cross provides each with an equal opportunity to seek redemption. Any such society is intrinsically an equal one in that human life may be qualified as successful or not on one metric, and every person is equally equipped to accomplish such a thing as they are in possession of free will. In a secular system, things are more complicated. In the first case, men are no longer accountable directly for their actions to God, so they need to be made to feel accountable to each other, hence the need in all modern systems to cultivate the idea of society, an imaginary bond of obligation between people who happen to live within an arbitrary geographical catchment. In so doing, the secular world seeks not to throw the baby of obligations that arise as a result of the Christian faith, such as charity, out with the bathwater of religion. In other words, community is the superstructure which must usurp religion if society is not to collapse in on itself.

Image shows Boris Johnson walking down a corridor, away from a group of people who are clearly talking about him.
Boris Johnson’s now-infamous ‘cornflakes’ speech highlighted his belief about the disparity in mental capacity between different people.

One consequence of the Christian system was, as discussed, that the dignity of a soul be equivalent between persons. Without such a thing, there is no obvious reason to believe that people are equal at all. It is a matter of politeness that we record only internally the enormous variations in physical appearance, mental capacity, consistency of application and material circumstances between people. In the absence of the Christian faith, and confronted with obvious disparities between people, there is every reason to suppose that some people are better and more valuable than others. And yet, human nature recoils from this notion except from in the minds of psychopaths. Belief in immutable equality is buried deep within the human consciousness, either as the result of Natural Law, as the Christian would have it, or as the result of some psychological eccentricity, as we may otherwise believe. It happens that this belief is also deeply ingrained in the political philosophy of those who will God out of public life, particularly on the Left. As such, if a pillarof Christianity, which is equality, is to be retained without the framework of Christian thought that makes this plausible, then an alternative, compelling rationale must be developed on the basis of the community concept. It is the purpose of the remainder of this essay to demonstrate that such a thing is impossible.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."Economic equalism

Image shows a Big Issue seller wearing a t-shirt that says "notice me". He is in focus, whereas the crowd behind him are blurred.
Discussions of equality in the West focus on economics.

Equality discussions in the West tend to be on questions of economics. It is almost axiomatic to every politician that equally distributed wealth is one of the primary goals of politics. This is partly for reasons of political calculation, which are easily comprehended in the era of a mass franchise. It is partly a result of the fact that the most obvious and quantifiable manifestation of equality would be in money terms. It is, above all, a deeply emotional goal, and as with all deep emotions in politics it is trussed up in the bounds of empirical argument. A good rehearsal of these arguments is provided by Mr Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. Drawing on a report by the IMF, Mr Wolf argues that the confiscation of money from groups that the government considers over-endowed and the reallocation of such money to other people who had less to begin with is the hallmark of a dynamic economy, and by implication a benefit to the whole of the ‘community’. Such work “drives faster and more durable growth” as well as performing a number of other important roles such as reducing the risk of instability, and allowing for better health and education for the poor. This is a more courageous argument than it appears at first glance. It acknowledges that it is irrational for the wealthy to support redistribution of assets by the state and that their opposition to such a thing will be an important factor in policy making. In recommending a discussion of this “taboo topic” rather than any policy to address it, Mr Wolf also acknowledges the impossibility of any effective action. The piece is a paean to the merits of ineffectual discussion of the sort that allows the rich to look compassionate and the poor to feel an enjoyable sensation of grievance.

Image shows a statue of Lenin in front of a dramatic sky in Sovetsk.
History has shown the ineffectiveness of Communism.

The reason such a thing is impossible is rooted in human nature. It will help to run through the methods by which one might try to redistribute money evenly. The first is Communism, which is in my view the only honest approach to for those who claim to be greatly aggrieved by the notion of inequality. Every variant of socialism, income taxation or wealth taxation does not tackle the fact that the distribution of economic assets between people is different, something much more important than fixing equal wages, something Communism also does. In theory, and assuming your primary wish was economic equality between people, Communism is the only means of political organisation able to achieve this. But it will not work. Why? Because it knows nothing of human nature, it views humans as born good and unselfish and not encumbered by original sin. It won’t work because the vast majority of human beings who profess to want equality of wealth want it for other people. Giving someone else’s things to another person seems to be one of the great joys of political life, and several wealthy politicians seem to have entered politics for the simple pleasure of redistributing other people’s incomes.
At heart, however, they do not want this equality for themselves – nobody does – they simply want the vicarious pleasure of wealthy people suffering and to be left alone themselves. Communism replaces elitism in assets based on money for elitism in assets based on your willingness to be a politician. No sensible person would pretend such a thing is good. What about Socialism, then? All Western political cultures are Socialist. This entails that they redistribute a progressively large amount of income from those who have earned it to those who have not. This is not a very efficient way to achieve equality because unlike Communism, there is no redistribution of assets. Instead, there is most probably an asset tax, but this tax is seldom in itself likely to substantially redress the balance between rich and poor. Socialism has been remarkably effective in providing a minimal level of support for the individual that is quite high – virtually nobody in England starves to death through economic want, almost all are housed, illiteracy, innumeracy and unemployment are more likely to be lifestyle choices than the consequence of government neglect. These are rich achievements, but they do not amount to equality, merely paternalism, and no such system can ever aspire to more. In summary then, Communism provides equality in theory and not in practice; Socialism does not provide it even in theory.

The reality of modern governments is that executive power is highly concentrated

Image shows a transparent ballot box with someone placing a ballot in to it.
The expansion of political franchise, at home and internationally, has been a focus of Western government in the past century.

Let us then turn to the equality of citizens through the ballot box. Democracy is the other great preoccupation of politics in the modern age. Such is the wonderful equality of the ballot box that it has been made the business of compassionate, sensitive Western governments to deliver this gift to hellish backwaters of undemocratic oppression throughout the world using bombs and bullets and marching boots. Democracy is the closest thing to a secular religion, and to question it marks one out as insane or dangerous. There are two things to say about this. The first is that there is no reason to suppose that the majority of Britons are in any way qualified to participate in the decision-making process of government, let alone illiterate shepherd boys in the Afghan hills. There is every reason to suppose that decisions made in this way, rather than by an educated and patriotic elite, will yield good results in governance, and in Britain the opposite has been true with every expansion of the franchise tied to a fresh burst of national decline. This is slightly beside the point, however. The point is that this equality too is hallucinogenic. Instead of reducing all political influence to the same level, it creates a special political class whose job is ostensibly to interpret the public will, as expressed through the ballot box. In reality, the executive power which this entails is, in fact, enormously concentrated, incredibly so when compared with the influence on affairs of state of the normal voter. Democracy therefore protects against dictatorship by creating oligarchy, but it is not an affair of equals and it is idle to pretend it is. I have not spent much of this article discussing the desirability of equality as conceived under the secular model. This is because I do not believe it exists or it can exist, so to do such a thing would not fulfil any useful purpose. There is, of course, a true equality long perceived and long accepted which is acknowledged at the start of this article. It is that idea of equality between souls that built our great civilisation, and it is that idea that will linger in the heart of man long after these modish political thoughts are consigned to the dustbin.


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Image credits: banner; Hogwarts; Crucifixion; Johnson; Big Issue; Communism; franchise