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Ancient history

Agnostics anonymous


It's long been impossible for whoever writes the storylines of European history to devise anything new. The main characters are all profoundly stereotyped, buried under centuries of baggage. The same basic plots are recycled indefinitely, generations after they became tedious clichés.

Thus we have David Cameron's 'speech at Bloomberg', in which he announced a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. He invoked history from 'Caesar's legions … to the defeat of Nazism' to support his Vision: that Britain should be either In, or Out. He's unsure, but he will let the people decide. Assuming they re-elect him. Cameron described his stance, in rather grand terms, as 'a heresy'.

This heresy has always been part of our self-definition: We don't quite belong to the European religion. Caesar's legions conquered, but sea-girt England emerged as a nation distinct from Roman Europe. After the Empire, Catholicism was the cement of Europe; Protestant England was among the heretical nations that rejected that too.

The French once saw Britain as 'Carthage': a mercantile, maritime, infidel state that threatened 'Rome', i.e. European civilization. By the Enlightenment, France had become Europe's dominant power, inheriting the mission to unify the continent. In 2013 the French, still leading the European project, were first to condemn Cameron's heresy (MP Claude Bartalone piously hoping it was 'un propos d'après-dîner').

People think they choose their own beliefs, but elaborate structures of belief pass down through the ages, irrespective of individuals. Look at European anti-semitism, which has survived unbroken from pogrom to new obsessions with Israel, while people and empires come and go.

English anti-Catholicism also endures the seasons. Richard Dawkins condemned the 2010 Papal visit in the same demonological terms as his spiritual forebears used in 1610. This is perhaps the one wellspring of English religion which hasn't yet dried up. Cameron once asserted that the UK is 'a Christian country'. But being Christian never defined England; all of its rivals and competitors were Christian too. The English religion is a peculiar heresy, the faith of a rebel state.

Cameron's speech may fire the ancient religio-political enthusiasm of the English, or the British, or just UKIP voters. But even they must know that the combatants in this ancient combfight are long since bald. Demography suggests Islam has a greater chance than Christianity of inheriting what's left of Europe. The important questions now are only about China, India, and how the US will cede power to them. World history has left European Christendom behind, leaving only its fading echoes repeating themselves, more farcically every time.