Documenting the Nones

Richard Dawkins explains the reasoning behinds his recent efforts to find out just how seriously British citizens who identify as Christian take their faith:

Some years ago, a colleague was admitted to hospital and a nurse came over to her bedside to fill in her personal form. “Religion?” “None.” Later, my colleague overheard a pair of nurses gossiping about her. “She doesn’t look like a nun.”

 

The census of 2001 seemed to show that over 70 per cent of British people were Christian. This figure has been triumphantly and repeatedly invoked by politicians, prelates, and apologists for religion, in apparently persuasive justification for a strong Christian presence in our governance and resource allocation. The census showed that we are still a Christian country, so it is claimed to be appropriate that all schoolchildren in England and Wales are required by law to take part in a “daily act of worship of a broadly Christian character”; right that 26 Bishops should have seats reserved for them in Parliament, where they influence political decisions in very Christian ways – on discriminatory faith schools, on abortion, on assisted suicide, for instance. Not just the unelected bishops: members of the Commons with an eye to re-election must heed the Christian voice and curry favour with this powerful demographic. Seventy per cent of the population want Christian policies, and 70 per cent cannot be gainsaid.

Many of us suspected that the vaunted 70 per cent hid an embarrassment of non-Christian, non-religious vaguery. “Well, our family has always been Christian and I was christened; I’m not a Jew or a Hindu and certainly not a Muslim, I love singing carols, Jesus was obviously a good person, just look at that gorgeous sunset, and there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, so . . . yes, I’d better tick the Christian box.”

Naturally people are free to call themselves whatever they like, and if you want to call yourself Christian even though you don’t believe in God and have only the haziest idea of Christian teaching, that’s none of my business. But it very much is my business, and every citizen’s business, if the recorded demographic strength of Christianity in the country is falsely inflated by a very broad and loose definition of what it means to be Christian, and that swollen figure is then hijacked and exploited by partisans of a much more narrowly defined Christianity. If you ticked the Christian box because (like me) you are moved to tears by Schubert and the Milky Way, and therefore consider yourself a ‘spiritual’ person, your ‘spirituality’ should not be used to justify bishops in the Lords, or ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in school. Ditto if you ticked the Christian box because (again like me) you have a nostalgic affection for the Book of Common Prayer and King’s College chapel.

He goes on to explain what he found by doing a new survey, and then he recounts and responds to the recent gotcha journalism which he has been subjected to recently in return for his efforts.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • gshelley

    He has a good point.
    The survey suggested that only around 55% of the population now actually gave themselves as Christian but that is still going to be used by people who want to push or endorse Christianity. Now the secularists can say “Yes but only 25-30% of those actually believe in Christian theology, and only a similar number think that the government should be involved in promoting religion”
    It is something that anyone who has lived in Britain has long known – people put Christian because it is expected, or they were Christened, or their parents where Christian but this is actual evidence.

  • Dan

    It’s an important(ish) question but it’s a shame it’s Dawkins asking it. And unless there’s something very significant missing from the middle of the article, it seems a bit bizarre to draw many (or possibly any) conclusions from the fact that (as little as/as much as) 35% of the public could identify the first book of the new testament; that hardly seems like a meaningful way to identify religious belief.


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