14 December, 2005

Nontheistic Christians: an Exercise in Hilarity

Another cross post from an earlier, diary thing, once again with minor edits.

These statistics have been around for a while now, but are still rather relevent. I knew about the UK government census results regarding Britain's religious beliefs - 72% Christian, 14-23%+ atheist or agnostic, and the largest minority religion is Islam, at approximately 3%.

Based on the YouGov poll results 35% of Britons don't believe in God, while 44% do. I've heard before the idea that most self identified Christians in Britain are largely just describing their vague idea of ethics and morality; that they don't even necessarily believe in God or Christ. The Telegraph - that epitome of reliable reporting - mournfully makes the same point here about the discrepency between the census (which simply asked people what their religion was,) and YouGov results, which asked about specific beliefs. The explanation sounds vaguely reasonable, too, given how few people regularly attend Church (approximately 7%.)

Some of those questions in the YouGov poll and the responses are bizarre. Do people believe in a Supreme Being other than God? One is forced to speculate how long a certain Church has been covertly infiltrating British society. And the number of atheists/agnostics who still want the Queen to be Protector of the Faith and head of the Anglican Church is extremely bizarre. Again, there seems to be a genuine sense amongst people that Christianity is simply what it means to be good, rather than a specific religion with its own dogmas and appeals to magic.

We lack America's constitutional prohibition against religious entanglement in government, though one of our traditions is, loosely, religious freedom and equality. So, regarding the YouGov's multiple choice questions about faith schools, the lack of option about getting rid of state funded faith-based schools because they're ruddy crazy at the best of times strikes me as a severe ommission.

My heartfelt lament about government established and funded religions aside - and understanding full well that the ways that people view themselves do not necessarily reflect how they behave - I do like this conclusion, regardless of how poor the evidence supporting it is:

'Taken as a whole, YouGov's findings suggest that "live and let live" is the dominant British approach to religious belief as to so many things. The relative absence of religious passion in Britain probably helps to foster this country's atmosphere of easy-going religious toleration.'

Well, mostly. There are instances in which I think that religion is given a pass not granted to other webs of beliefs and philosophies, a pass it shouldn't have. For instance the United States of America has a rather nasty habit of exempting Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses and others from child negligence laws (both groups refuse certain medical treatments for their children - blood transfusions in the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and everything in the case of the Christian Scientists. Many States in America specifically allow people from significantly large religions - but no others - to deny such treatment to children.)

Faith healing and prayers don't work medical miracles; they don't save lives or salve maladies, it's that simple. Even when belief simply isn't true I think it should be protected; people should always be allowed the option to hope, to believe, even to pray for others to get better. All of these things can help in the same way, and for the same reasons: knowing that people care and want to help can make a difference (albeit often senstationalised and grossly over-stated,) in peoples' recovery.

However, antivaccine nuts should not be allowed to put their own children and others at risk for the causes of pseudoscience, ignorance and dishonesty; children should not be allowed to die for lies or untested, even incorrect beliefs. Most people, religious people certainly included, would agree, too. Is there any reason this shouldn't apply to religious beliefs, too? There are standards of knowledge and understanding, and the best one; that is to say the one with the most successes, the one most adept at fixing its own mistakes, capable of overthrowing its own long-held ideas in the face of evidence, which can be carried out and replicated by all people, is science. Further, if we decide as a society that there should be limits to the way legal guardians treat their children - that they shouldn't beat or sexually abuse them, for example, and that they have a responsibility to make informed decisions on their charges' behalf - why should religion over any other individual belief be granted special dispensation in these same areas?

But yes, Britain has a Hell of a lot of self-identified Christians who don't believe in God, and atheists who want Christianity to be bound up in government (and one certainly hopes a lack of Straussian ethics involved with that last point.) Human beings are bizarre.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

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