The Church of England and the Art of Bullshit

This is quite the headline from the Church of England!

Wow! Four out of five people believe in the power of prayer! Remarkably high belief in the supernatural at a time you’d expect otherwise…

The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith said:

Prayer is one of the most natural and instinctive of human responses, so I am not surprised to see these findings. I come across people on an almost daily basis who want to talk about prayer and how to do it. This has been even more evident recently, as many people are facing uncertainty about jobs and finance. However, there has also been a desire to pray for trouble spots in the world, not least when we see the appalling photos from Syria on the television.”

Wow! Even the Bishop agrees that the power of prayer is as strong as ever!

Surely the raw data (PDF) back up this claim, right?!

Of course not.

The Church of England is lying to you. And everyone else, for that matter.

Here’s how they did it:

They asked respondents: “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, What would it be for?”

If they asked me, I’d probably say something selfish (Money! Power! Health!)… while you might say something more generous (Peace! Prosperity! Love for all!) In fact many people answered something along those lines since it was an open ended question.

But 287 of the 2015 respondents took a different approach. They said “I would never pray for anything.” And another 106 said they didn’t know what they would pray for.

If you add that up, that means 393 out of 2015 people wouldn’t pray for anything specific.

That also means the remaining 1622 out of 2015 would pray for something specific.

That’s about 80%.

Four out of five.

Which brings us back to this headline:

If my AP Statistics students analyzed the same data this way, I would have to fail them. But, to their credit, it would probably just be an honest mistake.

The Church of England, on the other hand, knows damn well what it’s doing. They’re purposely spinning the results to suggest prayer is a bigger deal than it really is.

The British Humanist Association’s Andrew Copson is all over this, explaining the logical fallacy and what it means:

It is amusing until you remember that this is an immensely powerful institution with a highly privileged position in public life, control of almost a third of our state schools and seats in our parliament. Their desperate attempt to have an Easter good news story through misleading claims conceals the reality of the religious demography of our country — religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in long-term decline — now at the level of minority pursuits — and non-religious identities and beliefs are on the rise.

Even Richard Dawkins is rightfully poking fun at the Church:


So far, the Church of England hasn’t apologized or admitted its bullshitting ways. But then again, their faith is built on a mountain of nonsense and interpreting things any way they see fit. They’ve never cared much for telling the truth before. Why start now?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Rain

    Ah yes the lovely Church of England that established itself with death penalties and prison terms for all who didn’t swear an oath to it. The giant power grab of henry VII. Yeah, I can just feel the love.

    • Rain

      Typo: Henry VIII. Sorry Henry.

  • Gary

    A few things to note about this. The percentages don’t add to 100, which means people gave more than one answer. Also, the wording of the answer categories themselves seems fairly specific. These two things say to me that this was a multiple choice question, not open ended. Lastly, as Hemant alluded to, the question is very biased. Someone could interpret it to be asking what they would pray for if they were they type of person who prayed, which is in effect just asking what is important to you. The problem isn’t in the analysis, it’s in the question. They wrote it that way to get the answer they wanted.

  • indorri

    I also don’t wonder if there’s some self-selection bias going on there. The way the question is worded, even with the “whether you currently pray or not” clause, invites those who pray as a habit or has a particular draw toward prayer. You may get some people in there saying “I wouldn’t pray for anything” because they don’t consider prayer to be worthwhile (assuming there isn’t some other reason), but your respondents aren’t likely to be those who don’t consider prayer to be a useful activity in the first place. Given especially that this is the UK and that religiosity and its manifestation is both far more private and more of a cultural identity rather than individual choice, you couldn’t even begin to speculate whether that sample was representative of the population.

    • trj

      If they took care to objectively select a representative sample of the population this would not be a problem. I don’t know how the survey was conducted, but I doubt it was some self-selective internet poll.

  • bLaKouT

    Bleedin’ C of E…

  • primenumbers

    CofE telling lies. What a surprise. I knew there was a reason I left them. Fortunately CofE is a relatively mild form of religion, and leaves you with good inoculation against many other forms of religious belief.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    i’m actually glad for the CoE. it’s a wonderful place to look when starting a discussion about the absurdity of religions. its birth and history are so obviously political, and not about ‘matters of faith.’ it demonstrates how the state uses religion for political goals, and how theologies are “flexible” when the state wants them to be. and currently, it’s one of the most boring religious organizations in the world, it literally puts adherents to sleep, as it tries so hard to be non-controversial and ‘inclusive.’ it stands for almost nothing, except for a paycheck from taxpayers and the right to control some schools.

    i have read on this blog that one of the best ways to make religion go away in a modern age is to have an official state religion. the CoE is highly suggestive that this approach may be correct. it’s so dull, inconsequential and mushy, almost no one in England pays any attention to it.

    • CottonBlimp

      And yet they have guaranteed control over government policy. It’s really bizarre, coming from America, where religion is generally a populist thing, especially a means of control over the masses, to see the CoE; it’s purely established by fiat, just for the sake of itself.

  • CanadianNihilist

    That’s dirty pool.

    It should simply ask “Do you believe prayer has power?”. That would be an honest survey.
    It would be interesting to see a world wide survey of that as well. Although by now I think we could probably guess with good accuracy which countries would have a higher prayer belief then others.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    “If” is the biggest word in the world. Beware wherever you see it.

    I get crap in the mail like this all the time:
    “If you hold the winning sweepstakes number, YOU HAVE WON A BAZOOKAZILLION DOLLARS!!
    Yeah. And if I don’t, which is vastly more likely, by taking the bait I have won a bazookazillion more pieces of junk mail.

  • angry british person

    We really should disestablish the Church of England. It was forced on the population to start with, it’s morally backward on issues like gay marriage and equality for women that the average English person supports, and then there’s bollocks like this where it pretends to be relevant, fooling no-body.

    • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

      Agreed. Also, the presence of bishops in the House of Lords makes us look like a theocracy. I want to live in a secular state, because that will be a better protection for religious pluralism, including the right to be an atheist, humanist, Pagan, Buddhist, etc.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    The trouble with lies like this is that they gain credibility, just like the rcc lie that the majority of those abused were not children (they did that by moving the age at which you were no longer considered a child back to 10). I still hear this rcc lie and nno doubt, in the future I’ll now hear the lie that 4 out of 5 people believe in the power of prayer.

  • busterggi

    A dishonest study gives dishonest answers, simple as that.

  • TiltedHorizon

    “asked what they would pray for, cited peace in the world and an end to poverty,”

    Seems 1 out of 5 people have figured out what 4 out of 5 have failed to notice; war and poverty still exists, prayer does not appear to be working.

  • David B.

    The dishonesty of this is breathtaking.

    There’s a popular game where you are asked “if you could have any superpower, what whould you chose and why?” Yet only a fool or a liar would say that was proof of people’s belief in superheroes. Similarly, asking people about their “zombie plan” doesn’t imply belief in zombies or a pending undead apocalypse.

    And what of all the other hypothetical questions you have ever been asked? Is deciding which famous person from history would you like to meet belief in ghosts or time-travel? Is expressing a preference for which house would you would want to be in at Hogwarts an admission that you believe Harry Potter is fact? Which Star Trek captain would you most like to serve under? Red pill or blue pill? Which is better, warp speed or hyperspace?

    My head is spinning at all the things I have potentially “admitted” to believing over the years?

    • Valancy Jane

      If it weren’t for manipulative and massively fallacious arguments, Christianity wouldn’t have many left at all. Give them a little charity, here.

      • David B.

        Perhaps someone should do a poll of CoE vicars asking them “if what you believe turned out to be false, would you want to know?”

        Then tally up anyone who answers yes, no or possibly and proclaim that’s the percentaqe of clergy who “doubt God exists.”

  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    I like Richard Dawkins’ tweet about that – it does summarise the massively misleading use of the data really well.

    Also, they are only talking about petitionary prayer – asking for stuff.

    The kind of prayer that is far more use is contemplative prayer, because it is like meditation (and is therefore a technique for becoming calmer and more insightful and so on, and does not rely on the existence of a supernatural being to work).

    I would be interested to know how many people believe in petitionary prayer and/or results magic (“results magic” is a scornful term used by Pagans for the kind of people who do spells to get stuff).

  • http://www.facebook.com/malcolm.hutton.98 Malcolm Hutton

    There have been experiments in prayer and it failed. The control group that didn’t pray had a better pecentage of being cured. The word ‘Christ’ is Ancient Egyptian and it appears on the coffins of many mummies, e.g. Nakht-Ankh. It means ‘Buried’. Jesus though was an Ancient Egyptian Son of God whom they believed lived in the person of each new King.

  • Loren Petrich

    I sometimes marvel at the Pollyannaish quality of comments about religion that one often sees. I sometimes think that if the commenters were sentenced to eternal damnation for believing in the wrong religion, let us say, they’d say that it’s all for the best.


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