Judging by twitter Prof Richard Dawkins was his usual emollient and self-deprecating self on Radio 4 this morning promoting the results of a new Ipsos-MORI poll commissioned by his Foundation for Research and Science. I didn’t hear it myself so I won’t comment, but what of the poll itself?

The poll was conducted straight after the census last year (why they’ve held it back till now I do not know), and sought to identify people who described themselves as Christian in the census and measure in more detail what their actual religious beliefs were. Unsurprisingly it found they were not universally very religious. In many ways, this is an obvious finding. In the 2001 census 72% of so of people said they were Christian, but we know from survey data and church census data that most of these people don’t go to church, and from many other surveys that at least some of them don’t believe in a god. I wrote about it in more detail back in 2007 here.

Turning to the new survey, first off it projected that 54% of people had described themselves as Christian on the 2011 census. This would be a very significant fall on 2001 if it was the case, but it’s probably worth waiting to see what the actual census figures are before getting all excited about it. People answer censuses very differently to polls and the survey’s projection may end up being wrong.

Moving on the survey contains all sorts of stuff about whether people who put Christian on the census believe in ghosts and astrology, or whether they know which books of the Bible come first and similar stuff which the press release from the RDFRS gets excited about, but basically it boils down to what we already know – some of the people who put Christian on census forms would not be Christian by some other definitions.

Cutting through the chaff on this the best questions to actually illustrate this are these:

– Q16 on whether people believe in God. Of those who put Christian on the census form 54% believe in a personal God, 10% don’t believe in a god, but think there is some sort of supernatural intelligence out there, 22% believe in God as being the laws of nature or the cause of the universe, 6% don’t believe in any sort of God.

– Q11 asked people who put Christian on the census form to define their religious views – 30% said they had strong religious beliefs and were Christian, 48% said they did not have strong religious beliefs, but thought of themselves as Christian or had been brought up to do so, 12% didn’t consider themselves religious at all, 8% thought they were spiritual rather than religious. Further on a question asks directly if people consider themselves to be religious or not – 45% say they do, 50% say they do not.

– Q24 & Q25 asked about some of the core beliefs of Christianity – Jesus being the son of God who was resurrected after being crucified. 32% believed in Jesus’s physical resurrection, 39% that he was resurrected spiritually but not physically, 18% that he wasn’t resurrected at all. 44% believed that Jesus was the Son of God, 32% that he was a good role model, 13% that he was just a man. Again, percentages are of people who put Christian on the census form, not the GB population overall.

Exactly how one defines what constitutes a Christian is an unanswerable question – you may equally well define being Christian as what people believe or by how they define themselves. What we can say with some certainty is that a fair proportion of people who put Christian on the census form don’t believe in a personal God, don’t consider themselves to be religious or don’t believe in some of the core tenets of Christianity.

This means that while there are other interesting questions on the poll, one can’t really use them to say X percentage of British Christians think this or that, because it is impossible to define British Christians. If one defines them as people who put Christian on the census form then you’d find only 54% believe in a personal God. If you define them as people who attend church at least once a month I expect you’d find the vast majority believe in a personal God. This is the difficulty of saying anything about ill-defined populations.

At the end of the day a lot of the survey and the PR around it seems to be aimed at knocking down the strawman argument that all those who put Christian on the census are devout, church attending, bible believing Christians when it is fairly clear from the outset that they are not. That’s not to say that the strawman argument of 72% of people are Christians so you should do this hasn’t actually cropped up in the political debate before – it has, and I’m sure it will continue to do so in the future.


69 Responses to “Richard Dawkins’ MORI poll on religion”

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  1. Peter Tatchell has outed Whitney as gay. Not sure why that is despicable, nor whether her having a family is relevant.

    Might well be true…might explain her problems if whe was trying to live a lie. It would be sad, if true. Cos she probably would have been happier out.

    For all I know, anyway.

  2. NICKP/COLIN

    My only interest in Whitney Houston is her fantastic voice.

    I doubt that her family will be affected by the views of some insignificant guy on one of Europe’s offshore islands.

  3. Interesting survey. It might be worth pointing out that some of those calling themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious” might well be rather devout. There are certainly sections of Evangelical Christianity where religion is treated as a dirty word.

    I also wonder how many people have contradictory answers. I know I’ve done surveys of peoples’ religious beliefs with various Christian groups before, and it’s surprising how many people claim they don’t believe in God but also say that Jesus was the Son of God.

    @AmbivalentSupporter
    “Only mainly the over 50s go to church these days.”

    Not necessarily true. The church I belong to barely has anybody over fifty.

    @Roger Mexico
    “Of course, no matter how faithful they proclaim themselves to be, they pick and choose which bits to follow. Hence ‘fundamentalist’ Christians seem more concerned with interfering in others’ sex lives than avoiding pork products. And Jesus’s strictures on hypocrisy seem to have passed them by entirely.”

    There aren’t many genuine fundamentalists in the UK, and most of them are in Northern Ireland. The idea that Evangelicals (a wider group that’s often confused with them, and which does have a large presence in the UK) are interested in interfering in other peoples’ sex lives is down to the media reporting almost anything that’s said in that direction, and ignoring almost everything else they ever say. In my experience, Evangelical churches do preach traditional Christian sexual morality, but don’t expect those outside their churches to follow it. When it comes to avoiding pork products, Christians of whatever stripe are actually just using the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament, rather than picking and choosing. Bringing it up is a strawman argument, and should really be avoided.

  4. Have never understood why a scientist would claim to be an atheist. Scientific methodology is based on hypothesis – test – restate or modify hypothesis (etc). Therefore, to state a fundamentally untestable categorical – ie “there is no god” (not – note – “there is no evidence for god”) – is in direct contradiction to the scientific methodology the scientist supposedly supports. The only logically consistent position for a scientist is one of mild agnosticism: “I hold open all positions as hypothetical as to this matter”. It is curious therefore that Richard Dawkins appears to take such mirth from so-called Christians for not understanding the basic tenets of their religion when he has such a shaky notion of his own quasi-religiosity.

  5. I’ve got a feeling the rumours about Whitney being gay are a few years old. I agree that it really makes little difference whatsoever to her singing.

    Just to the tabloid gossip.

  6. CROSSBAT11
    LOL, yes, the Great Man’s book is a good read.

    But yes,good luck with the spiritual journey we all have. which Richard Dawkins is also undergoing his journey, I think, like young men sometimes say homo phobic things in school as they see this in themselves.

    You may be interested to know that the english translation of the Mass has gone back to the 1965 version, which I welcome, but ageing ‘liberals’ do not like. LOL, but young people seem to like.

  7. Politics, Religion and Soccer.

    Glasgow Rangers Football Club, o dear o dear.

  8. I remember when Rock Hudson it turned out that “everybody” knew he was gay.

    Perhaps the media were more respectful in those days, or maybe they were more afraid of the courts.

  9. CHRISLANE1945

    “Soccer”?

    Rangers don’t play in a US league. What might concern some of those south of the border is that a number of Premiership clubs also used EBTs as a tax avoidance scheme, which HMRC consider to have been tax evasion.

  10. @crossbat11

    Comparative religion can be a good way to get some some perspective on one’s own background/heritage.

    I liked this:

    “In Hinduism, the dividing line between objective sciences and spiritual knowledge (adhyatma vidya) is a linguistic paradox… modern science is a legitimate, but incomplete, step towards knowing and understanding reality.”

  11. OLD NAT.
    In my school we called it Soccer, to distinguish the game from Rugby Football.

    Yes, tax avoidance is a problem I think, and what happened to Rangers could not have happened to a nicer club. LOL, partisan I know.

  12. CHRISLANE1945

    Oh! THAT kind of school.

    I presume that you meant Rugby Union and not Rugby League when your school talked about “Rugby Football”? Rugby League is such a nasty Northern English thing. :-)

  13. Yougov/Sun CON 40% LAB 39% LD 9% APP -19%

    Looks like we’re in for another up down up down week like last week.

  14. @OldNat

    “Rugby League is such a nasty Northern English thing.”

    Only if you watch Wigan play. St Helens are much easier on the eye!!

  15. So Dawkins thinks that this poll proves that people who claim to be Christian in the census are not Christian ?

    As Psephologists, let us consider a parallel with which we are familiar – namely “political identifiers”.

    It is generally accepted that the number of people who identify themselves with a particular political party vastly exceeds the number who are actually members of any party, still less the number who are actively engaged in supporting their identified party.

    Equally, if one were to test the political / philosphical positions of those supporting any party against teh published manifestos / policies of that party, one would find some odds results indeed.

    In contrast, when one looks at the details in this poll, one finds that there is a fairly solid body of support for the key tenets of Christianity amongst those questioned – far highr than the numbers who actively attend church on a regular basis. This suggests that the pool of people who identify themsekves as “christian” is not only numerous, but also that these people are more aware of and faithful to their beliefs than those who claim to be notionally Conservative / Labour / Lib Dem etc.

    So what was Dawkins trying to say ? That Britain is no longer a Christian country ? It seems he has been confounded by the facts as dmonstrated in his own poll !

  16. I note that this was a face-to-face poll. I suspect that the pollster would have identified the client. This would have tended to distort the findings since most people would be a bit defensive if answering questions put on behalf of the “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science”.

    The reason they took so long to release the survey is presumably because there was a long tussle about the wording of the summary. The present wording is a pretty contentious summary and it’s a pity MORI gave in.

  17. And I’ve looked up the British Social Attitudes survey of 2011 which as 43% as Christian, and in 2001 had only 41% as Christian when the Census had 73%.

  18. Another thought for the day –

    Suppose we substituted a topic much discussed on these pages as the subject matter – eg Scottish Independance.

    Then let us allocate Christians to Full Independance, other religions to various permutations of devolution, and Atheists to centralisation of power back to Westminster (ie undoing the Status Quo). The one-third of the population citing no religion would equate to “don’t knows”.

    On that basis, would one seriously argue that, because the majority of those notionally in support of independance have not fully understood the implications, that there is then scope for the Atheists to mount a successful campaign on the back of the one-third who have not expressed a view and the hope of shifting opinion among those who only loosely support independance ?

    Methinks that the militant secularists have much to learn about tolerance and democracy.

  19. I think, whatever your faith (or no-faith) perspective, we can all agree on these pages that this has been a terribly worded (and even ill-conceived poll).

    I think Richard Dawkins Foundation should be renamed, the Foundation for Dodgey Research and Science.

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