Yes, we should be questioning those who identify as Christian

If you missed it yesterday morning, Richard Dawkins appeared on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, alongside Giles Fraser.  I want to start by saying that I like and respect Giles Fraser, although I disagree with his religious beliefs.  In the same way, I like and respect my religious friends — but this doesn’t change my evaluation that their beliefs are categorically wrong.  I try not to deliberately offend anyone when taking about religion, but conversely, I’m not prepared to hold back on what I consider to be the truth.

The debate today concerned a survey, carried out by an independent agency in the week following the 2011 UK census.  The results suggested that the percentage of people who identify as Christian in the UK has fallen significantly since the previous census, down to just 54% — barely a majority, and certainly not enough to make any claims about this being a “Christian country”, never mind justify the inclusion of religious practices into public practices and governance.

The part of the research that was far more interesting however, was that on how many people who self-identified as Christian actually held Christian beliefs or engaged in Christian practices.  While the Church constantly downplays this issue when it cites the number of UK “Christians”, it’s actually massively important and very interesting.  Secularists have suspected for quite some time that large numbers of people feel compelled to identify themselves as “Christian” because of the way they were brought up, rather than because they actually hold any Christian beliefs.  The results of this survey strongly confirm this:

  • Out of those people who selected that they were “Christian” on the census, only 1% did so because they believe in the religion.
  • 72% did so because they were baptised into the religion as a child — I have argued for a long time that many people do not grasp the idea that being baptised does not mean they have to identify as Christian.
  • 38% and 37% respectively did so because of their parents or the Sunday school they were sent to.
  • Just 19% selected that their choice was because they currently attended regular religious services.

As we look into the nature of faith, the survey becomes yet more interesting:

  • 56% of people who identify as Christians do not believe Jesus was the son of God.
  • Only 10% cited religious beliefs, rather than inner moral sense or consultation with family & friends, as the source of their moral choices.
  • 6% considered being Christian to be “a British tradition” (appeal to tradition fallacy)
  • Just 22% said they had accepted Jesus as their “saviour”.
  • 58% considered Christianity as simply “trying to be a good person”.
  • 40% thought being Christian was about being brought up Christian.
  • 50% of respondants did not consider themselves to be “religious”.

I cannot state strongly enough how important this research is.  It confirms the suspicions of secularists, that a majority of people who self-identify as Christians do so not because of their beliefs, but because of social conditioning — the idea that they “should” be Christian because they were raised that way, because they have been baptised, or because it’s “British”.  I have personally experienced many times where people have told me that they are Christian, and then proceeded to tell me that they do not believe in God.  At the least, we can take away from this that:

  • Statistics used by the Church to justify religion in public life on the basis of “number of Christians” must be considered highly flawed.
  • As atheists, we must do more to reach those who self-identify, but do not believe.  We need to let these people know that they do not have to identify as “Christian” merely because they were baptised.  We need to give them the confidence to break out of religious identification.

On the Today Programme, Giles Fraser questioned whether Dawkins had the right to question the beliefs of those who self-indentify as Christian.  I would argue that we have the responsibility to question, if only for the benefit of those non-believers trapped in the “Christian” label.

Dawkins cited the example that only a minority of “Christians” could name the first book of the New Testament; I do not believe it was the strongest argument based on the data we have, but it was valid nonetheless.  Fraser then refuted by asking Dawkins to name the full title of On the Origin of the Species — on which Dawkins unfortunately stumbled.  It would be a mistake to attribute this as a win to Fraser, however, for several reasons:

  • The name of the first book of the New Testament is a lot shorter than the full title of On the Origin of the Species; it is therefore a lot more reasonable to expect believers to know the former.
  • The comparison is ludicrous.  The bible is the holy book of, and a fundamental cornerstone of, Christianity.  On the Origin of the Species is a single book on evolution — it holds no special place within rationalism.
  • It’s not religion vs. evolution.  It’s religion vs. rationalism.  Disproving evolution would not disprove rationalism; it would merely leave science in search of a better theory.
  • There is no requirement for an atheist to know anything to be an atheist.  An atheist is simply someone who does not believe in God.  Atheism is not a religion comparable to Christianity, it is the absence of religion.  On the contrary, to be a Christian, one must know of God and of Christ.  You simply can’t claim that someone does not know enough about atheism to be an atheist; on the contrary, someone must know of Christ, God and the bible in order to be a Christian.

Fraser proposes that self-declaration of Christianity should be sufficient.  The reality is however, that if we know some people label themselves Christian for social rather than religious reasons, we do need to dig deeper if we want to find out how many actual Christians there are — especially when we have nutjobs like Warsi who want to take us back to a theocracy (again, with the appeal to tradition fallacy).

Fraser argues that just because the beliefs of those who identify as Christian vary, that does not mean that they are any less Christian.  I can see his point — Catholics have different beliefs to Protestants.  The fact is however that there is still a certain set of defining beliefs that make someone a Christian believer.

Allow me to give an example.  Imagine a big, red ball.  Now, shrink it down and turn it blue.  It’s still a ball.  We can change many things about the ball: its colour, its texture, its size and so on, but it’s still a ball.  Now make the ball square.  It’s not a ball anymore, even if you stick a label on it saying “ball”.  The same is true for Christians: so long as they believe in God and Jesus Christ as saviour, they are Christian, despite variances on whether they idolise the Virgin Mary or not.  If you take away that belief in God and Christ however, that’s a little different; those are fundamental tenets of the religion.  56% of self-identifying Christians do not believe that Jesus was Christ, the son of God.  That’s a defining aspect of Christianity — without it, they’re no more Christian than they are Jewish or Muslim.

Now, call me a cynic, but always thought the Christ thing was pretty important to Christianity.