I always urge some degree of caution on polls commissioned by pressure groups – not because any of the pollsters would willingly ask skewed questions, but because if pressure groups didn’t think they were going to get the answers they wanted they wouldn’t pay for or release the poll. It does cheer me up when a pressure group commissions a poll and gets an answer that obviously wasn’t the one they expected to get, especially when they have the guts to publish it anyway.

Theos, a new Christian think tank, heralded their launch by commissioning a poll from Communicate Research. They started by taking one of Richard Dawkins’ more confrontational statements and asking if people agreed with it: “Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”. Smallpox is obviously vastly unpleasant, evil is a harsh word, and as Matthew Parris noted in the Spectator last week, “faith” is a nice word, without the negative connetations of “religion”. Obviously people were going to think that “faith” was nicer than “smallpox”.

Rather surprisingly though, 42% of people said they agreed with Dawkins with only 44% disagreeing, much to the amusement of the British Humanist Association and Labour Humanists.

The rest of the survey found that 53% of people thought that, on balance, religion was a force for good in society, with 39% of people disagreeing. 58% of people though that Christianity has an important role to play in public life, with 37% disagreeing. On the latter question there was a very obvious age difference, the older respondents were the most likely they were to think that Christianity has a role in public life – 69% of over 65s agreed, with only 24% disagreeing. Amonst the youngest age group, under 25s, only 43% agreed with 52% disagreeing.

To Theos’s great credit they reported the first question along with the other results, the Telegraph’s reporting is rather less sound: the question that doesn’t fit with the story is only mentioned in the commentary to try and shoehorn in a trend of young people being less likely to agree with Dawkins that doesn’t actually exist (compare the first and last question. On whether Christianity should have a role in public life there is a strong and consistent trend -amongst every age group the younger you are the more likely you are to disagree with an almost as smooth trend on agreement, with only 35-44s slightly bucking the trend. The difference between under 25s and over 65s agreements is 26 points, a significant difference. On the Dawkins question the figures are up and down with no clear pattern and the difference between youngest and oldest is only 7 points, so not statistically significant).

UPDATE: For those who are interested, here is Richard Dawkins’s own response to the poll – “I am greatly encouraged by this poll. One of the commonest allegations hurled at me is that I am too intemperate, too extreme, too offensive about religion. But my remark about faith and the smallpox virus is just about the most extreme thing I have ever said. That’s as far as I have gone towards pushing the envelope. And now it turns out that 42% of the British people agree with it! It is not just that 42% don’t believe in God (that figure is presumably even higher). The amazing result is that 42% agree that “Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate”. Doesn’t this indicate that our whole consciousness-raising effort is succeeding? Even though the poll was conducted only in Britain, we can quote the 42% British result again and again in further consciousness-raising in other countries. And don’t forget the important point that the poll was conducted by Theos, an organization that obviously neither wanted, nor expected to get this result.”

For the record the percentage of people that polls suggest do not believe in God isn’t higher than 42% despite the proportion who agreed with this question. The most recent polls I could find with a straight question were a Communicate Research one for the Evangelical Alliance and a YouGov one for the Telegraph. The results were very similar – Communicate found 45% of people believed in “God or a higher spiritual force” and 33% did not (the rest didn’t know), YouGov found 44% believed in God and 35% said no (again, the rest didn’t know).

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