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What I learned talking to Boris Johnson about religion

4 August 2019

7:23 AM

4 August 2019

7:23 AM

I don’t pretend to have had extensive discussions about religion with our new Prime Minister, but I did have a couple of brief ones when he edited my first Spectator articles. We once discussed Christian and Muslim ideas of martyrdom, and he was suddenly reminded of a hymn he liked at Eton which he proceeded to sing to me down the phone. 

His tone towards religion in general was, as you’d expect, a bit guffawing: here’s a prime site for flippant jokes and the puncturing of earnestness. But, knowing that I took religion seriously, and seeing that we had an article to discuss, he was a tad constrained. The intellectually serious side of him saw that the show-off side should pipe down a bit, for here was an interesting subject that he had paid relatively little attention to.

In relation to religion I would characterise him as an eighteenth-century Whig, full of confidence in the classical world as the source of enlightened culture – and ready to laugh, with Edward Gibbon, at the gloomy excesses of monotheism. Also, there is some macho scorn for the less than entirely virile ethos of the New Testament. In fact in one discussion I mentioned my thesis that Christianity remained at the heart of secular humanist values and he bullishly put the case for the greater influence of the classical world.

His columns have been careful to avoid the topic. But he once strayed into it and I responded.

Boris argued that religion was a useful force in the reformation of violent young men. His implication, I said, was that the irrationality of religion remains a necessary force in the disciplining of the plebs, but is not needed for calm rational minds like you and I. It reminds one of the position of Voltaire, that rationalism should not be taught to the lower orders, in case it erodes their crude morality.

Is there a more theologically sophisticated side to him? Maybe: some of his journalistic friends are Roman Catholics, and he has presumably pondered their perspective.

But my main sense is that religion is for him a weak spot, a relatively unexplored side of life, and that he vaguely knows it. It’s something he would like to have taken more seriously, but to do so is at odds with the flippant persona that earns him such adulation, fame and fortune. Religion, it might one day dawn on him, is where flippant jokes fall down.


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