Sunday, 16 March 2008

Easter Charade

Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning excitedly unveiled the findings of a new opinion poll, timed for Easter, into the state and nature of Christian belief in Britain. Carried out by ComRes on behalf of theological think-tank Theos it revealed, as such surveys invariably do, a "surprisingly high" belief among the general population in the status of Jesus Christ as Son of God, and his resurrection from the dead.

57% of those questioned believed that Jesus rose from the dead in some form, with almost one in three apparently accepting the traditional view that there was a physical resurrection: empty tomb, doubting Thomas, road to Emaus and all the rest of it.

Theos director Paul Woolley was excited about the survey. "The fact that over half of Britons believe that Jesus rose from the dead is particularly striking and demonstrates that society is not as 'secular' as we often imagine it to be." he claimed. I'm less convinced.

Clearly the compulsory religious education in primary schools is having some impact. But I wonder in what sense that 57% (who must make up a good proportion of the 70% who told the census that they were Christians) actually believe in the resurrection, or even know what it is that they are being asked to believe. Most of them don't go to church, except for weddings and funerals and perhaps the odd carol service. I would imagine that their largely passive belief in the factual truth of Christian doctrine has little or no impact on the way in they lead their lives. They probably never even think about it. Perhaps many of them thought that they were answering a different question, namely "What does the Bible say happened to Jesus after his death?"

If I believed in the resurrection I would be on my knees praying. It is a profound, unsettling, shocking belief. It radically undermines the whole complacent, materialistic basis of our society. It would mean, if true, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was, not merely the most important event in human history, but possibly the only event of any real significance. It would demonstrate all religions other than Christianity to be at the least false and very probably roadblocks to salvation. So utterly transformative an event would the resurrection be, if true, that I severely doubt whether many of those who profess to teach it - bishops and suchlike - have actually thought through its implications. The Bishop of Oxford, for example. Would he be so laid-back about the Islamic call to prayer being broadcast over the city if he believed that it was a profound statement of untruth? Yet, if Jesus was risen from the dead, Islam represents not merely an untrue religion but a denial of Christianity's central premise. Muslims (officially, at least) don't just deny that Jesus rose from the dead. They deny that he was even crucified.

The rest of the survey compounds this sense of unreality. For example, 40% claimed to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. That is a whole 17 percentage points fewer than the proportion believing that he rose from the dead, at least in some form. So nearly one fifth of the population are happy to believe that Jesus was resurrected, yet don't consider him to have been in any way divine. 47%, meanwhile, accepted the description of him as "a holy prophet". (The two opinions were not mutually exclusive.) Leaving out the 3% of Muslims, for whom this statement is an article of faith, we are left with 13% of the population who allegedly believe in the resurrection but don't think Jesus was even a prophet.

Clergy will doubtless be pleased to know that 95% of regular churchgoers assented to the proposition that Jesus was the son of God. They must be doing something right. They might be more surprised to learn that a third of those belonging to another religion (not including Muslims) shared the same opinion. As did 15% of self-declared agnostics (which makes you wonder what they think "agnosticism" means). As did, even more staggeringly, 7% of atheists.

That last statistic is so implausible that it simply cannot be true. My guess is that the atheists concerned thought that they were answering a question about Christian theology rather than their personal belief. As for those belonging to another faith, my guess would be that a sizeable proportion of them were Hindus. Hinduism tends to be quite generous in such things. After all, what's another God when you've already got 300?

There are some interesting things buried in the fine detail of the poll. The highest levels of belief were found among the middle-aged (55-65), lower middle-class, women and those living in the north of England. Young people with professional-level occupations living in the South East were least likely to believe. This scarcely tallies with recent claims (from David Cameron, among others) that Britain is becoming a more religious society. On the contrary. As prosperity increases, religiosity declines. Indeed, only half of all 18-34 year olds - the entire younger generation - agreed that Jesus was "a good man and a wise teacher." More than a third were "don't knows". Perhaps they really didn't know. Perhaps they don't have a clue. Perhaps some of them haven't even heard of Jesus.

For me, though, the most bizarre statistic was the 2% of churchgoing Christians who agreed with the proposition that Jesus never even existed, while a further 3% didn't know. Who are these people? Why are they wasting their Sundays?

3 comments:

Grim Reader said...

I too doubt that 57% of British people believe in the resurrection. Maybe 57% of the people who go to Church ...

Lost Causes said...

Aren't most surveys these days carried out purely for PR purposes (i.e. London free paper editorial)? They normally seem to confirm the position of the business or organisation releasing them (conflicting results, of course, being buried).

It would seem responsible to release a full transcript of the questions for clarification - maybe this is available somewhere?

An unscientific review of my colleagues (largely youngish males in London), reveals few fervent atheists, but NOT ONE professed Christian. Labour voting, on the other hand, seems to have a religious quality where voting is automatic regardless of unpopular new policies.

The Heresiarch said...

The full poll details are on the Theos site linked I linked to.

Sorry to hear that Labour voting is still an automatic reflex among your acquaintanceship. One would have thought that after 11 years of overspending, illiberal laws, sleaze, incompetence and illegal wars people would have snapped out of that particular delusional mindset.