David Aaronovitch: Don't ask me to weep if Christianity is 'vanquished'

'Is it not absurd to expect people to base their moral behaviour forever on a set of supernatural assertions?'
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Eight days ago, while my stay-at-home colleagues were doing their best with the latest minor revelations from the Conservative leadership campaign, I was prancing round the ruins on the temple-island of Delos. The kids managed the (now drained) Sacred Lake but were defeated by the heat and by the extraordinary discovery – at the sanctuary of Dionysus – that shapes that they had previously only seen scrawled on toilet walls were once solemnly carved in marble by religious Hellenes. Try explaining what a phallus is to an eight-year-old girl.

So I left them both drinking Cokes in the shade of the museum, turned my back on the temples of Artemis and Apollo (born together on the island) and headed uphill. There the successors to the empire of Alexander – who had parcelled out his vast inheritance between them – had set up shrines to the gods of their various huge new kingdoms. The Syrian gods, Atargatis and Adad, had their place here – the first claiming a relationship with Artemis and the second with Zeus. In the Egyptian temple there was the ancient Isis, and then the new deity, Serapis, recently invented by the Ptolemies (I hope you're paying attention) as a deliberate fusion between Hellenic and Egyptian gods. Through kings and states adding to the gods on Delos in this way, the religious life of the island was extended to some 800 years.

But what did the High Priest of Serapis say when the pilgrims stopped coming? When did he know the game was up? Perhaps it was the day that the Christians arrived to smash the tops off Dionysus's phalli, leaving only vast, marooned testicles behind. He probably shook his head and anticipated the drying up of the streams and the shrivelling of the crops. It is also possible that some clever Christian convinced him that, in fact, Serapis was the Virgin Mary and that many of the sacred rites he was so attached to were perfectly consistent with what the church did at Easter.

If not, he may have lamented the defeat of his religion, as did the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster this week. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor addressed the National Conference of Priests in Leeds thus, "In our countries in Britain today, especially in England and Wales, Christianity, as a sort of backdrop to people's lives and moral decisions – and to the Government, the social life of the country – has now almost been vanquished." Other things were now taking the place of Christ in the lives of young people, notably occult and new age religions and pop music.

This "vanquishing" he saw as not only being bad for him, but bad for the rest of us. He argued that it was all part of a "de-moralising" of society, in which transient happiness was to be found in the pursuit of selfish activities like shopping, taking drugs and looking at porn. The Archbishop of Canterbury said something similar a few months back. The implication is that Christianity originally defeated pagan decadence, and its near demise now puts decadence back in the driving seat (if that is not too dynamic a metaphor for decadence). Après moi le phallus!

This argument sometimes makes us atheists very cross. The Catholic columnist, Cristina Odone, recently wrote that paedophilia was a symptom of a godless society. If we cleaved unto the church, she implied, then we wouldn't abuse ten-year olds. Had that been true, then the Cardinal would not have had to use Wednesday's speech to tell the world what steps would, of necessity, now be taken to prevent further child abuse within the priesthood.

It was the great fault of the late Cardinal Winning to associate a change in certain social attitudes, and a decline in deference towards transcendent morality, with a decline in personal morality. Anyone who addresses a meeting of sixth-formers will soon understand that moral and ethical behaviour is more discussed by young people than ever. Much discussed, and individually negotiated. And is it not absurd to expect that people should forever base their day-to-day moral behaviour on a set of culturally specific, supernatural assertions?

What is amazing about Christianity, though, is not its decline, but its extraordinary longevity. And far from being "vanquished", it is now being absorbed, as Serapis was. Institutional Christianity may be in trouble, but the features, fables and ethics of the religion itself are being diffused among the millions of customised moralities and belief-systems that people construct. At the silliest level, the notion of alien abduction owes everything to the story of the Resurrection. Disney's The Lion King had more overt spiritual messages thanThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, incorporating Eastern notions of the circle of life, as well as the idea of the saviour and blood sacrifice.

If cardinals looked beyond the flim-flam of advertising and the hysteria of media headlines, then they'd find much to comfort them. The New Testament ethic of how people should behave towards each other (supplemented these days by some newer ideas about the planet and what is on it) has not been "vanquished" as the preferred moral goal. The kids in Hollyoaks do not discuss Nietzsche and the idea of the Superman approvingly. Sure, you can find many who "believe" in a social Darwinist natural order of things (the race will always go to the strong, men will always fight, that kind of thing), but very few who regard it as a superior morality.

I have no wish to see the churches die. You will find an internationalism in your local church, with its exhibitions of projects in the third world, that you won't discover anywhere else. I like to see the vicar walking from the vicarage to the church in his robes. I enjoy the sense of continuity, and it makes a change from estate agents. I feel the same about Voluntary Service Overseas, special constables and lock-keepers. Though, actually, I have little reason, intellectually, to regret the diminution of the Catholic church, any more than the passing of shamanistic ritual or voodoo.

But here's a paradox, one that I've mentioned before. If Christianity is, according to one of its leading practitioners, being "vanquished", then how can it be that we are about to experience a great expansion of the number of church schools in this country? And not in Scotland (so ominously exempted by the Cardinal) either. You can see why the ailing churches might want to get our kids into their assemblies ("give me a girl at a tender age and she's mine for life", as Jean Brodie had it), but why would we over-worldly, drug-taking, masturbating materialists want to send them there? Surely there won't be enough God-fearers to go around.

The Government and the churches must be very careful here. If parents are in effect invited to lie about their beliefs in order to meet the entry requirements, and such lying becomes widespread, then cynicism about both religion and the education system will soon be epidemic.

The same will happen if new specialist schools demand too much by way of "aptitude" from their applicants. Anyone who can suddenly acquire faith should have no problem getting their hands on a bit of aptitude.