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 AndrewCopson.net):
- 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.