Slavemaster Dawkins and declining religious belief

As submitted to Daily Maverick.

Richard Dawkins’ recent failure to recall the full title of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the species” served as a useful distraction from what many Christians would like to forget. Namely, that very few of them – at least according to recent research on Christians in the UK – are religious believers in any substantive sense of the word “belief”.

Dawkins certainly chose a poor example to demonstrate this in pointing out that an “astonishing number [of Christians] couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament”. Remembering the title of a book is no indication of how little or how much of its contents you regard as significant, or of how much an influence it’s had on your life.

But using this example allowed the Rev Giles Fraser to ask Dawkins, on live radio, if he could remember the title of Darwin’s book. Dawkins asserted that of course he could, but then proceeded to be unable to do so. In case you’ve also forgotten, the full title is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.

While this is a longer title than “Matthew”, making these challenges asymmetrical, this is beside the point. Also beside the point is that remembering the order of four books isn’t the same sort of challenge as remembering the title of one. Dawkins was in error to use the example, and Fraser likewise misguided in thinking that Dawkins’ lapse demonstrated anything of significance.

What is of significance are the data collected in the survey of religious attitudes conducted by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFS). Because while not remembering the title of a book says nothing about what you believe, what you say you believe certainly does. And in terms of reported belief as well as reported practice among the 1136 people recorded as Christian in the 2011 census, you’d struggle to find much difference between some of them and most atheists.

Nearly half of the respondents had not attended any religious services or meetings in the last year. Of the group who hadn’t attended a service in the past year, 32% hadn’t done so in the past ten years either. Of course, attending services isn’t a prerequisite for being a believer. More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that only 28% of self-identified Christians surveyed reported that they believe in Christian teachings, and that 37% say that they “never, or almost never” pray. Other interesting details include:

  • 15% of them have never read the Bible
  • 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus
  • 24% say that the Bible is inferior to other sources of moral guidance
  • 54% look to their own “inner moral sense” for guidance on morality, and only
  • 10% seek moral guidance from “religious teachings and beliefs”
  • 50% do not consider themselves to be religious

Looking at these results, it’s difficult to fathom what these respondents mean when they say they are Christian. When asked that question, 40% report that being Christian means “I try to be a good person”. As do most of us, I hope. But for being a Christian to mean as little as this must be rather alarming to any “real” Christians out there who take verses like John 15:14 seriously, where Jesus is reported to say that “you are my friends if you do what I command”.

It might come as a surprise to you that this is somewhat worrisome to atheists also. Well, at last for this atheist. Because it’s far more important to me that all of us think carefully about what we believe, and know our reasons for believing what we do. Whether or not Christians who read (and follow) the Bible and pray are right or wrong, they’re at least consistent. That consistency allows for more productive debate, in that if any of us can be persuaded that we’re wrong on some foundational principle, it’s possible for us to change our minds more generally.

By contrast, if your belief system is filled with instances of cognitive dissonance – often accompanied by the epistemological disposition known as “making it up as you go along” – debate tends towards pointless. Your mind can’t be changed, because in terms of some of your beliefs, you don’t really have one. Furthermore, the fact that you aren’t quite sure what or why you believe is rarely an impediment to simulating firm conviction in matters of public policy.

One-third of the respondents, for example, are sympathetic to the UK having an official state religion, and more than half want state-funded religious schools. In non-religious schools, 40% of respondents think that children should be obliged by law “to take part in a daily act of broadly Christian worship”. But then, 78% of respondents say that religion “should be a private matter and governments should not interfere in it”.

It’s clear that most of these respondents don’t really know what to think, and perhaps aren’t quite sure what they in fact do think. And some of their responses are clear indications of religion simply being a matter of culture rather than belief, where the culture in question revolves around some general notion of “being nice”. On this model, even God appears to be nice – twice as many of the respondents believe in heaven as do in hell, which is rather handy for the 38% (of Christians, remember) who report that Christianity is “not very” or “not at all” important in their lives.

Dawkins’ memory-lapse is simply a distraction from what amounts to a crisis for Christianity in the UK. Those who think that crisis merits attention will make little headway by focusing on that lapse, or indeed by attempting to discredit Dawkins through alleging that he is descended from slave owners.

Likewise, Dawkins’ argument isn’t strengthened by pointing out that many Christians don’t know which book is first in the New Testament. The more pertinent point is that many of them don’t know what that book (or any of the others) says – and that they don’t care.

A follow-up post to this (of sorts) can be read here.


By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.