map of Calais and Dover

How do we respond to the information about the refugees at Calais? About Prime Minister David Cameron’s description of migrants as a ‘ swarm ‘? What feelings does immigration evoke?

This post relates the question to the declining influence of Christian morality, especially the idea that all the world’s people are equally created and loved by the same god.

The Bishop of Dover has responded to the Prime Minister, saying that ‘We’ve become an increasingly harsh world’ and ‘We need to rediscover what it is to be a human, and that every human being matters’.

Nick Cohen has written an excellent article on the situation at Calais . It’s not cheerful news; among other things it points out how the rhetoric of British governments has become more and more hostile to immigrants over the decades. Why is this happening?

Short-term factors

May’s General Election reminded us that, whichever party won, we would be governed by people with one dominant ambition: to compete effectively for votes and win elections. That means appealing to whatever the public is bothered about.

The public, meanwhile, depend for nearly all their information on newspapers and television channels, nearly all owned or controlled by a tiny number of unrepresentative people whose main ambition is to maximise the numbers of viewers and readers; and the easiest way to do that is to appeal to the most basic human instincts.

What are those instincts? When we feel threatened we want everybody else to go away and leave us alone. It is only when we feel confident and happy that we feel like helping those in need.

As foreseen in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, governments have found ways to make us feel permanently threatened. The most permanent, now, is the idea that we need ever-more economic growth. This, being impossible, always provides reasons for postponing a better life in the interests of solving the current crisis. So we accept deteriorating conditions for the time being, a time being that never ends. Meanwhile it also makes us feel we are up against things, and one result is hostility to foreigners.

Long-term factors

Cohen’s article shows how we used to be more sympathetic to refugees. At the end of the Second World War Europeans, among other things, had two things in common. One was the knowledge that they too might have been homeless refugees if the outcome of the war had been different. The other was that the Christian basis of European culture was not yet being seriously challenged.

When Christianity began, two thousand years ago, it arose out of a very different culture. The Roman Empire and the Middle East were comparatively cosmopolitan, but had no sense of the unity of humanity. Foreigners were different. The differences could be variously described, but there was no presupposition that they were basically the same as ‘us’.

This changed with the belief that the whole world has been created by just one god. Everybody is equally the product of God’s creative work, so it seems to follow that everybody is cared for by God.

Most scholars attribute the first monotheistic texts to Second Isaiah, an anonymous prophet of the sixth century BCE:

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you in the womb;
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who by myself spread out the earth (Isaiah 44:24).

The addressee is Israel, who is to make sure everybody knows:

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

600 years later the universalistic message is reinforced in some early Christian texts. The best known is memorable to churchgoers because the unfortunate person on the rota to read it at Pentecost invariably struggles with the place-names:

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power (Acts 2:7-11).

We may be distracted by the implication of a miracle, but the point was that people from every direction, people of every race, were to share the universalistic message.

This became a common theme of Christianity. Similarly Islam, when it arose, was an internationalist movement proclaiming one god for the whole world.

It doesn’t mean that Christian and Islamic societies always do care for everyone as though they were equally loved by God, but it does provide a reason for treating them like that. Refugees are equally created and loved by God, so we should make sure that they, just like the rest of us, have somewhere to live and something to eat. When we fail, we are at fault.

Europe has inherited this Christian tradition, but as secularism takes hold, especially among the ruling classes, its logic disappears from public discourse. Evolution theory offers no alternative. From an evolutionary perspective the only thing humans have in common with each other is that we belong to the same species. Families care for their members, but species do not. So as the newspapers find that they can sell more copies by encouraging xenophobia, and as politicians find they get more votes by going along with it, secular society has no philosophical resources to resist the trend.

In private most of us, if we saw someone drowning, would rescue them if we could. In private we would feed a starving child. We don’t need any religious authority to tell us. In public, though, we go along with the dominant establishment narrative when it encourages our negative feelings. In public, we can easily return to where we were two thousand years ago.

The Bishop of Dover was right. Our public discourse needs, as much as ever, spiritual authorities who appeal to higher moral standards than our ruling classes.