Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dawkins vs Baroness Warsi - Christian Britain and its Secular detractors

Richard Dawkins has just released details of a survey designed to explore why in the 2001 Census 72% of British people ticked the box marked 'Christian'. There are two posts about this survey on the Dawkins Foundation site  Dawkins survey post no.1  Dawkins survey post no.2 . I have analysed the original survey data and my bulletin on this can be downloaded here response to Dawkins survey .  On the day this came out Baroness Warsi the Muslim conservative cabinet minister was meeting the Pope to call for the protection of Europe's Christian identity in the face of secularist attacks upon it Baroness Warsi article in Telegraph . It seems that the arguments between those who want to 'defend Christian Britain' and those who want religion to play no role in public life are an ongoing media story. This is not to everyone's liking. Giles Fraser, who on national Radio caused great amusement by asking Dawkins if he could name the full title of Darwin's Origin of Species, causing the atheist Darwnian scientist to stumble and exclaim 'oh God' when eh couldn't, has written in praise of the tradition of religious tolerance attacking both positions.Giles Fraser in Guardian . What are the issues and how should Christians respond?

Firstly simply turning this into a battle between the two extremes probably only helps the atheist secular view. Dawkins if often strident and when met with gentle humour and non-dogmatic response he often comes over badly in comparison. This is partly why there was so much delight at his radio stumble; people rather liked him being caught out. Dawkins was right that in fact the stunt did not really act as an equivalent to asking people who said they were Christians to pick the name of the first book of the New Testament from a multi-choice list. But people enjoyed it all the same.  However, one thing that Dawkins Survey carried out by IPSOS/MORI did show is that those who ticked Christian in the census do not on the whole support Christianity as a state religion. At least as a Muslim Baroness Warsi is not a member of the Church of England, but the danger is that defending the role of the church in public life appears to be defending the Church's privileges.

On the surface Dawkins poll is seeking to show that most people who put Christian in the census are not really that at all; which rather ironically leads to an atheist defining what a real Christian is.  The real agenda however, is to argue that Christianity should be a private religion with no place in public life. The idea is that by showing most people who tick Christian in the census are not really so this undermines a role for the church in the state. Anyone who follows survey data on religion will be likely to realize that most people who tick Christian rarely if ever go to church or hold Christian beleifs. however, until this survey there has been no direct comparison of such to the answering of the census question. in one sense the survey makes Dawkins case; the majority of those who ticked Christian where not regularly in church, rarely prayed or read the bible and cited being baptized as a child as the main reason they were Christians. Whist claiming these as Christian may help bishops argue for seats in the Lords i doubt it really helps the church in its day to day life. without a church tax as is the case in many European countries, this is not going to fill the church pews or fund its ministry. More importantly should we as Christians be happy simply to bless this situation and not rather hope that Christian faith play a more significant role in these people's lives?

it seems to me both more honest and also helpful for the church's ministry with those people to admit that there are many who identify with the Christian religion but have little personal faith.  But does that mean conceding the argument or with Fraser opting for a tolerant dismissal of the question? Part of the problem here is our Christendom legacy,  I can understand why Giles Fraser argues that if people want to say they are Christian who are we to say otherwise, but in the end this simply upholds a view of being Christian that saw all born in our country so simply because they were British subjects and most were baptized accordingly. i have no problem with welcoming children into the church by baptism, neither do I feel that parents must pass a faith test first. But i think feeling that this is then 'job done' is a recipe for the kind of nominal Christianity Dawkins seeks to expose.

if i don't in the end agree with Giles Fraser i do think he is right to look for a third way between the defenders of Christian Britain and its secularist attackers. I also think Dawkins survey far from proving is case actually supports this third way. Firstly it shows that at least 18% of the population are seeking to follow the Christian religion and it's teachings, but significantly a further 22% of people identify their desire to be good people with Christian faith and associate this with the Bible as the best guide there is to morality. these people may not defend Church positions in the state, though many do, but they do want to see what they understand as Christian values influencing society. This is not however support for traditional positions on things like homosexuality and abortion, but would see Christian values as important on issues like poverty, business, human rights, support for families and children. If Dawkins wants to play the numbers game and argue that moral positions informed by Christianity have no role in public life because only 40% of the population support them, what then of the views of secular atheists? Survey's suggest they are at most 15% of the population. Dawkins might well respond that they don't have a privileged position because they are secular but simply have to make their case on merit of the argument. Perhaps it would strengthen the Christian case if they did the same? it may be that be surrendering some of the perceived privilege of the church  it might find it gained more authority to speak for what are still the largest grouping in British society, those who see Christianity as the best guide to live by. after all we must remember only 23% of people voted for the current conservative government.


Peter said...

Something that struck me was that 71% of respondents believe that Jesus was resurrected in some form. In his analysis Dawkins concentrates on the split suggesting that only 32% believe in it since he seems to take the view that it was a purely physical event. I am not convinced - maybe my theology is a bit off but I always thought it was bit of both?

Its fascinating that while other areas may score quite badly %wise, this one if you look at it as a belief in the resurrection in some form is pretty high, and I really can't see how Dawkins can be comfortable with it since whichever form you look at both are supernatural events and very far from the sort of naturalistic/materialist worldview he would like to see people taking.

Steve said...


one of the issues is always that Dawkins insists that certain views are truly Christian and thus can't handle that kind of nuance. you are right to raise that - there is similar in other areas

Peter said...

Something that struck me from the survey is that actually the gap between self identification and belief in some core parts of Christianity is actually a lot smaller than I thought it would be - certainly over the resurrection question.

What it does highlight for me is the probable numbers who share Christian beliefs but for one reason or another are outside of organised church communities. If churches successfully identify the reasons for this and can address those reasons, there would be a very remarkable opportunity for growth.

Perhaps things like 'Fresh Expressions' are already starting to do that - though how much of Fresh Expressions is transference from one church to another and how much is it bringing in people who are generally 'unchurched'?

Maybe partly because I am hovering around the edges of organised Christianity myself at the moment and still feel rather marginalised it's something that catches my attention. I am clearly far from alone.

Matt Stone said...

Steve, in broad agreement with you. I don't think we should be defending Christian nominalism, but neither should we be allowing faith to be defined by the faithless or abandoning the public discussion to religious and irreligious extremists.

Steve said...

yes i think i got struck by that too - and as i work more with those in New Age and Pagan paths the more i also meet people who often are also on the fringes of church but find the current institution hard to relate to. not sure of you know these but some good books on your question of understanding this - two by Alan Jamieson on churchless faith this is the first an also two pieces of research on people leaving church and all worth a read
and yes your personal comments make a lot of sense too

Steve said...


as often totally with you ;o)