By Timothy Garton Ash
In the next few days, hundreds of millions of people will, like me, go to sing, often with gusto and delight, lines they do not believe or, at best, only half-believe. According to a recent Harris opinion poll for the Financial Times, only one in three people in Britain say they are "a believer". In France, it's less than one in three; even in Italy, it's less than two thirds; only in the United States does the figure exceed three quarters. And it would be interesting to know what proportion of that minority of true believers in Britain and France are Muslims.
That set me thinking - in this extended festive season of Bodhi Day, Hanukah, Christmas, Eid-ul-Adha, Oshogatsu, Guru Gobind Singh's birthday and Makar Sankranti- about what it means to say that we respect someone else's religion in a multicultural society. It seems to me that the biggest problem many post-Christian or nominally Christian Europeans have with the Muslims living amongst them is not that those Muslims are believers in a different religion from Christianity but that they are believers in a religion at all.
This baffles the intellectually significant minority of Europeans who are, so to speak, devout atheists, proselytising believers in the truths discovered by science. For them the issue is not any particular religious superstition, but superstition itself. It is also what worries the much larger number of Europeans who themselves have some vague, lukewarm religious beliefs, or are mildly agnostic, but put other things first. If only the Muslims wouldn't take their Islam so seriously! And, many Europeans would add, if only the Americans wouldn't take their Christianity so seriously!
Now one can argue about whether the world would be a better place if everyone became convinced of the atheistic truths of natural science, or at least took their religion as lightly as most part-time, demi-Christian Europeans do. (Myself, I'm agnostic on that point.) But clearly this can't be the premise on which we build a multicultural society in a free country. That would be just as intolerant as the practice of those majority Muslim countries where no other faiths than Islam are allowed.
On the contrary, in free countries every faith must be allowed - and every faith must be allowed to be questioned, fundamentally, outspokenly, even intemperately and offensively, without fear of reprisal. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford scientist, must be free to say that God is a delusion and Alistair McGrath, the Oxford theologian, must be free to retort that Dawkins is deluded; a conservative journalist must be free to write that the Prophet Muhammad was a paedophile and a Muslim scholar must be free to brand that journalist an ignorant Islamophobe. That's the deal in a free country: freedom of religion and freedom of expression as two sides of the same coin. We must live and let live - a demand that is not as minimal as it sounds, when one thinks of the death threats against Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists. The fence that secures this space is the law of the land.
The interesting question is whether there is a kind of respect that goes beyond this minimal law-fenced live-and-let-live yet stops short of either a hypocritical pretence of intellectual respect for the other's beliefs (the currency of much inter-faith polylogue) or unbounded relativism. I think there is. In fact, I would claim that I know there is - and most of us practice it without even thinking about it. We live and work every day with people who hold, in the temples of their hearts, beliefs that we consider certifiably bonkers. If they seem to us good partners, friends, colleagues, we respect them as such - irrespective of their private and perhaps deepest convictions. If they are close to us, we may not merely respect but love them. We love them, while all the time remaining firmly convinced that in some corner of their minds they cling to a load of nonsense.
Routinely, almost instinctively, we distinguish between the belief and the believer. To be sure, it's easier to do that with some beliefs than it is with others. If someone is convinced that 2 + 2 = 5 and the earth is made of cheese, that will impede everyday coexistence a little more. Yet it's amazing what diverse and even wacky beliefs we do, in practice, coexist with quite happily. (The widespread popular faith in astrology is a good example.) That said, the conduct of the believers can affect our judgment of the belief irrespective of its scientific truth-content. For example, I do not believe there is a God and therefore assume that some 2007 years ago a couple called Joseph and Mary just had a baby. But what a man he turned out to be! Like the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, I can't get anywhere with Christ as God, but as a human being Jesus Christ seems to me a constant and wonderful inspiration - perhaps even, as Burckhardt put it, "the most beautiful figure in world history". And some of his later imitators didn't do so badly either.
My quarrel with the Dawkins school of atheists is not anything they say about the non-existence of God but what they say about Christians and the history of Christianity - much of which is true, but leaves out the other, positive half of the story. And, as the old Yiddish saying goes, a half-truth is a whole lie. In my judgment as a historian of modern Europe, the positive side is larger than the negative. It seems to me self-evident that we would not have the European civilisation we have today without the heritage of Christianity, Judaism and (in a smaller measure, mainly in the middle ages) Islam, which legacy also paved the way, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly, for the Enlightenment. Moreover, some of the most impressive human beings I have met in my own lifetime have been Christians.
"By their fruits ye shall know them." There is a respect that flows from the present conduct of the believers, irrespective of the scientific plausibility of the original belief. A multicultural society can, at best, be an open, friendly competition between Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, atheists and, indeed, two-plus-two-equals-fivers, to impress us with their character and good works.
Meanwhile, there's the vexed question of the all-purpose multicultural midwinter salutation. "Happy holidays" is impossibly twee and anodyne. I'm afraid I have resorted to "season's greetings", but that's pretty tiresome too. Ideally, one should customise according to recipient - "Merry Christmas", "Happy Eid", "Jolly Oshogatsu", etc - but that is not always possible. Yesterday, I received a card from the British ambassador to Washington which contains an excellent solution. "Yuletide greetings", it said, evoking the Pagan winter solstice (Yule is tomorrow, December 22) but with the hint of a warm-hearted Dickensian Christmas. Perfect.
Good Yule to you all.
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. He is also professor of European studies in the University of Oxford.