Don’t be a Dawk about it

Richard feeling grumpy after an embarrassing radio interview

Richard Dawkins recently published the results of a survey into the level of religious belief in Britain. Among the more shocking revelations was that only one in three Christians could correctly answer a four-option multiple choice question asking them to identify the first book of the New Testament.

Rev Giles Fraser made a risky comeback, asking Dawkins whether he could give the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Dawkins went blank on it, stumbled around for a while, but eventually got it mostly right.

Fraser used this lapse to say,

‘If you ask people who believe in evolution that question, and you came back and said 2 per cent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to say they don’t believe it after all.’ (Source: Daily Mail)

As a result, there has been a fair bit of ridicule and triumphalism bandied about on the net by Christians or other Dawkins-dislikers.

This is unfortunate for more reasons than Dawkins gives (i.e. that the question he had to answer was disproportionately difficult, compared with the Matthew multiple-choice).

Firstly, Fraser’s retort seems to suggest that Christian belief without even the most basic awareness of Christian content is somehow acceptable. Yet on the contrary, even the most rudimentary acquaintance with Jesus’ teachings makes it clear that Jesus rests everything on hearing, keeping, and obeying his teaching, and following his example, such as:

  • Lk. 14:27 “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
  • Jn. 8:31 “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”
  • Jn. 15:14 “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (See also Matt. 7:26-27; John 8:47,51; 15:10)

Dawkins is probably right, therefore, that the majority of Britons who identify themselves as Christians actually have no functioning religious belief whatsoever.

Secondly, Fraser’s superficial victory has drawn Christian attention away from these rather alarming revelations from Dawkins’ research. Instead of hearing what Dawkins said, Christians have majored on his (understandable) memory lapse. Yet these are some of the conclusions of his research (taken also from

  • 17% of Christians have never read the Bible
  • 28% of census Christians believe in Christian teachings
  • 6% had attended a church in the last week
  • 65% said they were not religious
  • 48% believe Jesus was a real person who was the son of God, died and came back to life
  • 10% say they seek most guidance on questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs
  • 60% hadn’t read the Bible in the last year
  • 28% say that it is a belief in the teachings of Christianity that makes them tick the Christian census-box

Dawkins is surely right, therefore, that the majority of British Christians are functionally atheistic. And how can Fraser be correct that the statistics do not fairly describe belief in Christianity when the stats show that ‘Christians’ are not acquainted with Christian writings, do not concern themselves all that much with Christian morality, do not identify with Christian beliefs, and do not attend church? Is there something more basic than belief and practice that defines the Christian religion? There isn’t according to Christian texts and church history, but maybe these days the enjoyment of cake and warm handshakes is sufficient (although diabetics and the arthritic are also more than welcome).

Dawkins also wrong

Having said all that, let me not give the impression that I think Dawkins’ point stretches any further. His motivation for presenting this research is to say that even though the census reveals that almost 70% call themselves Christian, tax money should not be allocated to the benefit of Christian organisations or religious ends of any kind, because the people are not really Christian.

The object of the poll , carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, appears to have been to discredit the use of census data to justify Christian practices such as government funding for faith schools and bishops having seats in the House of Lords. (Source: The Week)

The obvious response is that Dawkins’ findings will matter for nominal Christians on Judgement Day, should there prove to be one. Where they don’t matter is in the realm of politics. Government ought to be distributing some of its funds (taken from the taxpayer) according to the will of the taxpayer. If people wish for government to spend money on environmental preservation, it doesn’t really matter how many of those people have Range Rovers and don’t recycle. It remains their will. Similarly, if census respondents identify themselves with Christian things, it is right for government to spend accordingly, irrespective of how devout those people turn out to be, or how consistent their beliefs are. Charges of hypocrisy are unfortunately not relevant, Mr Dawkins.


7 thoughts on “Don’t be a Dawk about it

  1. Hephaestion says:

    What was the reasoning behind the poll? Well, what does Richard Dawkins himself say?

    “People very often use alleged figures for the numbers of Christians or the numbers of religious people in the country as justification for imposing religiously-inspired policies on us. For example over abortion, over gay peoples’ rights, over the rights of religious interests to be exempt from the law, that kind of thing.”

    “The reason why we commissioned it [the poll] in the first place is because politicians and other religious apologists have used the 72% [from the 2001 census] to implement policy, and they cannot use the 54% [from the poll] now to implement religion-positive policy (because more than 50% of the population allegedly are Christian) because the policies that they’re implementing are not such as would be endorsed by the majority of those 54% – and we even asked them, explicitly, what is your view on things like the privileging of religion in law, what is your view on gay rights and so on, and time and again the general message that comes through is “No!” These people may call themselves Christian but they are not favoring Christian policies.”

    The poll serves to show that there is a gulf between Christian privilege and influence on the one hand and the beliefs and values held by self-proclaimed Christians on the other. Christian leaders are influencing policy that the Christian electorate do not necessarily endorse.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Thanks for this. Good to get it from the horse’s mouth (Richard D) rather than the horse’s arse (The Telegraph) as I did.

      I agree that the census figures should not be used to give the appearance of majority support to minority issues. However, there are caveats to that:

      1. I don’t know how it works over in the UK, but if the electorate endorses a religious candidate who punts religious ideas (even if he erroneously uses census figures to push his issues) there should be no complaint about his right to do so. It is up to the voter to get rid of him, and up to his opponents (who would surely know his opinions are minority) to see through his bad arguments. It’s not like diversity of opinion over political issues is the best kept secret in the Christian world. Everyone should be aware already that 70% of the UK does not hold a uniform ‘Christian’ position on gay rights for example.

      2. Decisions on policies should surely be put to referendum if the public’s opinion is wanted. I have a very hard time believing that anybody in government actually thinks it is a valid argument to say, ‘The nation is 70% Christian; Christians all believe X; therefore 70% of the nation believes X.’ If that’s an argument that gets traction with UK government, and the people voted that government in, then I say they deserve everything they get.

      Am I missing something here?

      Then on your last point, just to re-emphasise, I don’t think that ‘Christian privilege and influence’ in the UK should be dependent on the actual beliefs of the individuals. It’s not right to judge the hypocrisy of people, only their will. If they resent the Christian privilege that has come about because of their census affiliations, they have no obligation to continue checking that block on survey forms. For all the census forms can tell, they might tick the block in spite of their actual unbelief because they actually appreciate the Christian influence on society. Maybe the census form needs a block to ask whether they would like Christian influence to accrue on account of their vote?

      I do agree that on individual policies, there should be no assumptions made about what people at large believe merely because they call themselves Christian.

      • Hephaestion says:

        1. The electorate gives a *party* a mandate to govern on its behalf. Any party, whether the National Front (a right-wing, racist, nationalist party) or the Christian Party (advocating the death penalty and corporal punishment, banning abortion, etc), can stand for election. Nothing is stopping Britons from electing the Christian Party, they simply choose not to.

        2. Referendums are only very rarely held, and usually only on constitutional matters – almost *never* on issues of policy (and to do so would be a form of “direct democracy,” as opposed to the UK’s democratic parliamentary system of government).

        It is not so much that ‘The nation is 70% Christian; Christians all believe X; therefore 70% of the nation believes X.’ but rather ‘The nation is 70% Christian; therefore we should fund faith schools, grant 26 unelected Bishops seats in the House of Lords, etc.’ The poll simply shows that Christianity deserves no such special privileges in society (and furthermore, this is the view of voters who identify themselves as Christians).

        It’s difficult to gauge what objections you actually have to Dawkins’ position on this issue.

      • Jordan Pickering says:

        Thanks very much for the info/corrections about the British system. 

        I think Dawkins does have a point. I’m not massively against what he’s trying to say. I’m simply doubting that the political issues that he’s got in mind (funding schools, bishops given seats etc.) depend on there being unhypocritical faith on the part of census respondents. I’m happy for him to be saying that the census is a bad basis for making political decisions. But if on the contrary one grants that the census should be used to make political decisions, then how strongly individuals can back up the way in which they classify themselves is irrelevant. There doesn’t need to be a demonstration that respondents are Christian enough for there to be funding directed towards Christian causes if one has decided that the census is an OK means for decision making.


  2. Hephaestion says:

    Your objections still mystify me.

    For example:

    There doesn’t need to be a demonstration that respondents are Christian enough for there to be funding directed towards Christian causes if one has decided that the census is an OK means for decision making.

    Does this mean that as long as people identify themselves as Christian then, regardless of what values and beliefs they hold, the government is justified in implementing religion-friendly policy and granting special privileges to Christianity? If this is the case, then you are indeed “massively against” what Dawkins is trying to say.

    …the political issues that he’s got in mind depend on there being unhypocritical faith on the part of census respondents.

    One of the key points to come from the poll is that the values and beliefs of Christians cannot be inferred simply from the label “Christian” (as is the case when using the census to inform policy). The poll tried to assertion what these beliefs and values actually are. You may describe these Christians as hypocritical, but that is neither here nor there. The point is that these values and beliefs, if taken into consideration by the government, would lead to different policies (than when assuming that all Christians hold fixed and predictable beliefs).

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Things I agree with:

      – Dawkins outing nominal Christians for ridiculous lack of consistency. – Dawkins insisting that particular beliefs can’t be assumed to be majority simply because they are associated with Christianity. – The idea that census responses should not be used uncritically to make assumptions about public opinion.

      Things I don’t agree with:

      – That all political favour granted on the grounds of a Christian majority is invalid. – That consistency of belief is relevant to the granting of political favour (in many areas). If people give a religion-friendly response on the census, the gov is entitled to make religion-friendly policy. – That UK government is naive enough to make assumptions about what Christians believe on the basis of census results, and therefore that anything relevant to particular Christian beliefs is actually based on the census. Even just the Anglican church in the UK has been publicly split into factions for a couple of centuries. I can’t believe that variations in Christian belief is actually news to anyone there.

      Basically, my point is that in general, a census self-description as ‘Christian’ is enough of an indication that said person has Christian sympathies of some sort, and that this is in fact enough to justify government sympathies to match (though it may not be enough to gain the sympathies of our Good Lord). As soon as the gov wants to pass some motion on the grounds that most of the population believes in the resurrection (or something else particular), Richard can step in and object.


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