Melanie McDonagh

Why Prof Dawkins has it wrong

Why Prof Dawkins has it wrong
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No sooner does Baroness Warsi denounce militant secularists who try to marginalise Christianity than, bang on cue, up surfaces Richard Dawkins with a survey commissioned by his Foundation for Reason and Science intended to demonstrate that Christianity is a minority pursuit.

His Ipsos MORI poll, published today, is intended to unpick that bit of the 2001 census which found that more than 70 per cent of respondents identify themselves as Christian. So — selecting from 2,107 respondents questioned the 1,136 who either said they were Christian in the census or would have done so — his poll finds that 72 per cent of them did so because they were baptised into the religion; 38 per cent of them because they are children of Christian parents; and 37 per cent because they went to Sunday school (the poll allows for more than one answer). By comparison, 28 per cent say baldly that they believe in the teachings of ‘this religion’ — as the poll refers to Christianity.

Asked to identify the single main reason they thought of themselves as Christian, 46 per cent identified baptism; 18 per cent said they believed in the teachings. (Actually that’s a bit of a dud question: baptism and active faith are quite different elements of Christian identity.) Another question established that just under 30 per cent attend church at least once a month, which rises to 40 per cent for attendance twice a year or more.

And when it comes to the conclusions to which the poll inexorably leads: 43 per cent strongly, and 35 per cent less strongly, think religious should be a private matter in which governments should not interfere. 38 per cent strongly, and 36 per cent less strongly, believe that religion should be a private matter and should not have special influence on public policy. See!

You can work out where this is leading, can’t you? The removal of bishops from the Lords, the withdrawal of public funding from church schools and — ahem — doing away with prayer before public assemblies.

Now, I would be the first to admit that this poll is a downer for anyone who cares about the future of Christianity; had it been broken down in terms of age, it would have made me even more depressed. But I honestly don’t think that the conclusions are those that Prof Dawkins seeks to draw from it. Were I asked whether religion should have a special influence on public policy, I’m not sure I’d agree. I am, for instance, anti-abortion, but that’s because I believe in the humanity of the foetus (and the late C. Hitchins tended to agree) rather than because I believe in Catholicism. I’m against euthanasia because it puts an intolerable burden on the vulnerable elderly, not because the Pope says so. Quite a few religious people operate on the basis of Reason, as Prof Dawkins would have it, not least because it is a God-given faculty.

But it’s another matter to relegate religion to the private sphere, which is what Baroness Warsi is suggesting that secularists want to do and which Prof Dawkins professedly does want to do. It is impossible to isolate those parts of your identity which belong to the religious and the rational sphere, simply because human beings aren’t formed like that.

I happen to like attending the Holy Week processions in Spain where everyone pitches in behind the statues of the suffering Christ, whether or not they are believers, because it’s an expression of communal identity as well as Christian faith. The moral sensibility that makes me naturally inclined to favour the Big Society is formed from being part of a much bigger Big Society, which is the communion of the living and the dead in the church. Regarding religious belief as something that can be detached from either a person or community is to mistake its character; it’s a way of looking at the world, a way of being part of a larger whole, not a matter of believing in the articles of the creed the same way that Prof Dawkins believes in the periodic table. (Though, as it happens, I do believe every article of the Creed.)

Baroness Warsi is correct about one thing, which is that this attempt to privatise religion is an attempt to diminish its standing, its place in society, to make it a matter for consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes, not for the rough and tumble of politics. But all this poll has done is to establish that when people are asked why they believe, their reasons are muddled and inchoate. For instance, another question in the poll finds that for most respondents, Christianity means trying to be a good person — which seems pretty sound to me. Christians are, patently, less clear in their beliefs than they were a generation ago, and according to all the evidence, much less thoroughgoing in their religious identity than Muslims, but that is not to discredit their religion altogether. And it makes the CofE, in all its heroic inclusivity, seem like rather a good means of expressing that identity.


Incidentally, I don't know what Prof Dawkins was trying to prove by asking whether respondents regarded themselves as ‘a religious person’ (45 per cent agreed) but I can't think of many of my fellow churchgoers who would feel comfortable saying that they were — it's tantamount to identifying yourself as a good person, which would be anathema to most Catholics.

But let’s not forget the other outstanding finding from the poll. Only a third of all respondents — 33 per cent — say they have no religion. The Pope may not have many divisions these days but Prof Dawkins, it seems, has even fewer.