Talking about God (Or Not) Part 4

16 Feb

There’s been a certain amount of fuss recently over whether or not Professor Richard Dawkins can remember the full title of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

My response to this is to ask ‘who cares?’

I wouldn’t criticise the good professor for being unable to recall the full title of Darwin’s book when he was asked to do so by Giles Fraser, but I would criticise him for being silly enough to accept the challenge. What he should have done is to ask what the former Cannon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral thought he was trying to prove by asking this question.

(For anyone who’s interested the full title on publication was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life).

The Origin of the Species does not stand as ‘The Bible of Atheism’, or indeed of evolutionary theory or anything else. It was a revolutionary book in its time and I gather that it’s also very well written, but it is unlikely to be required reading for anyone studying evolutionary biology these days. Science has moved on since the 24th of November 1859 when the book was first published.

(Perhaps some of Professor Dawkins’ critics should bear these points in mind before overestimating the significance of his embarrassment on this point).

And maybe this is the point that Giles Fraser was missing. Maybe he fell prey to that tendency we all have to assume that other people fall into the same patterns of thought and behaviour that we do and he simply assumed that atheists need a bible in the same way the Christians seem to and that Darwin’s best known work must be that bible.

I could be wrong about this. I know very little about Giles Fraser and quite frankly I think far too much has been made of this whole puerile spat.

Having said that, the reason the exchange came about in the first place was the publication of the findings of a poll carried out by MORI on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. (Just for the record, I think I might have a lot more sympathy for Professor Dawkins if he didn’t have a foundation named after him, it seems just a little immodest, somehow).

According to the 2001 census 72% of respondents identified themselves as Christians, while the 2011 census found that this figure had reduced to 54%.

Obviously it’s beyond the scope of the census to look much further into people’s religious beliefs, it’s an instrument designed to help shape government policy and to direct government resources and in any case, I don’t think I want the government to go poking into people’s beliefs in any great detail.

Having said that, I think it was high time someone asked a few followup questions. I’m sick and tired of people claiming that the UK is ‘a Christian country’ on the strength of that 2001 census figure.  

This isn’t due to ‘aggressive sceularism’ on my part. I just don’t like it when people make glib claims that gloss over the complex issues lying behind the terms they use. I think that’s dishonest.

In this case, the two issues that would seem to require scrutiny are; a) what does anyone mean by the term ‘Christian country’ ? and b) what is it people really mean when they identify themselves as Christians?.

The 1555 Peace of Augsburg stated that the ruler of any given country had the right to determine the religious faith (in practical terms this meant which Christian sect) was followed by the population. Historians will recognise this as the law of ‘cuius regio, eius religio’.

But these days most of us recognise religious freedom as being a basic human right, so what does it mean for a country to be ‘Christian’ these days.

In my opinion, not much.

It’s just a glib and careless phrase that I suspect is used by some people who want their ideas or institutions to have some kind of unearned privilege over other ideas and institutions.

So what do people mean when they identify themselves as ‘Christians’.

In theory it should mean something like being a follower of the teachings of Christ. (I suppose you could follow Christ’s teachings in the same way that you might follow the moral teachings of Immanuel Kant for example ie with no particular reference to belief in God, the resurrection or Christ’s status as the Son of God, but I doubt if many people follow Christ’s teaching without also accepting these beliefs).

On the other hand, according to the recent MORI poll only 28% of those who would identify themselves as Christians believed in the teachings of Christ, while 72% of those who described themselves as Christians  did so as a result of having been baptised or having been born to Christian parents.

Only 38% of those who identified themselves as Christians stated that they did so on the basis of personal belief.

There were various findings relating to church attendance, reading the bible and other activities one might associate with being a Christian but I’m not sure what any of that proves. You could certainly be a devout Christian and never go near a church.

I tend to think that reading the bible and prayer are probably more important aspects of being a Christian, but since I’m an atheist I don’t want to be too dogmatic on the subject.

In any case I’m not concerned with the state of  anyone’s soul, I’m just interested in what people think and do.

All of this may be deeply discouraging to those who want to see Christianity as an important factor in the life of the British people.

Personally, I’m interested but not elated.

The findings that I find encouraging are more to do with the 74% of those questioned who agreed that religion should not influence public policy and the 92% of those who agreed that the law should apply equally to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs. I also find the relatively small number of respondents who expressed hostility or disapproval of homosexuality quite encouraging.

It is my conviction that homophobia is no more acceptable than racism or any other form of irrational prejudice and I see no reason why we should be tolerant of anyone’s intolerance just because they claim a religious basis for their hang ups.

Crap is crap and should be treated as such even if the purveyors of that crap can quote the scriptures in order to support it.

In conclusion, I don’t want to see religion banned and I don’t particularly hate, mistrust or despise those who are religious, but I do think that religion and politics often make for a toxic mix and I believe that the founding fathers of the United States (none of them wild-eyed fanatical atheists as I recall) were quite right in specifying the separation of church and state.

(I think that this is even more important now that we are becoming more of a multi-faith, multi-cultural, pluralistic society).

And it would seem that a growing number of people in the UK, even those who identify themselves as Christians, share the view that church and state should be kept separated.

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2 Responses to “Talking about God (Or Not) Part 4”

  1. Edward Fraser 22/02/2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment. A very interesting post.

    • fekesh 22/02/2012 at 8:25 pm #

      Thank you,Kind Sir.
      I was annoyed about that little spat because it seemed to distract attention away from the important points of the survey. I also think the timing of the survey should have made it an important corrective to David Cameron and Baroness Warsi’s calls for more assertive Christianity, not to mention Ericv Pickles and his overturning of the court decision that Local Council’s shouldn’t make religious services part of their official business. (Typically Pickles comments on the right to worship being a fundamental right, but ignres the fact that the right not to worship is equally fundamental. He’s also seeking to imply (mendaciously in my view) that the ruling somehow restricts the right to worship. It does nothing of the sort, it simply sought to prevent an act of worship being an item on the council’s agenda. Aggressive secularism my foot. We’re looking at some pretty aggressive (and apparently dishonest) anti- secularism here.

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