Rush to judgement

Richard Dawkins should be wary of presuming to judge who is a genuine Christian and who isn't.

Jesus's most prominent opponents, the Pharisees, spent a great deal of time and energy telling their contemporaries who was and who was not a true Israelite.

Working on the Sabbath? You're not in. Mixing with the unclean? You're out. Not tithing your dill and cumin? You fail. Jesus himself was repeatedly faced with the same accusation. He couldn't possibly be a real Israelite, let alone a true prophet. Just look at what he did.
There is a pleasing irony, in the light of this, that the recent story about how many real Christians there are in Britain should emanate from Professor Richard Dawkins.

According to new research, commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and conducted by Ipsos/ MORI, a lot of nominal Christians in Britain are, well, nominal. Despite the fact that 72 per centof people ticked "Christian" in the 2001 census, only 54 per cent did in the Dawkins survey, and only 28 per cent of those did so "because they believe in the teachings of Christianity".

In actual fact, even seasoned religion watchers have been surprised by some of the results of the survey - not by how low they are but how high. Is it really the case that 44 per cent of "census Christians" believe that Jesus was "the Son of God, the Saviour of Mankind"? Or that 71 per cent think he "came back to life"? Or that nearly a third believes he was physically resurrected? Or that two-thirds think that the Bible is "a perfect" or at least "the best" guide to morality we have today? I would not have imagined the figures were so high.

The precise details of the survey aside, saying who is and who is not "really" Christian is a parlous business. Church history is littered with the corpses of those who weren't really Christian, at least according to others who judged them so. Passing judgement on another's religion is hazardous.

The Dawkins survey places great weight on what people believe and practise, over and above how they self-identify. He rightly implies that people who don't know much, believe much or do much in the name of their religion aren't really very religious (although the exact number who are so totally disengaged is very small).

Yet how you choose to identify yourself does matter. Several years ago I conducted some in-depth interviews with groups of people all of whom would have fallen into Dawkins's "not real" category. They were vague about their beliefs, never went to church and knew precious little about Christianity. Half, however, were census Christians and half were not.

The difference was not only noticeable but visceral. The census Christians were generally sympathetic and supportive of Christianity, in particular its role in moral formation and in public life, whereas the others were hostile to the point of being venomous. What you called yourself clearly did make a difference.

We would all do well to remember this when we feel like making windows into people's souls. Questions of whether someone is truly Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or, for that matter, secularist or humanist are rarely straightforward and to categorise the world into those who are the real deal and those who are not is to do a disservice to the sheer messiness of human nature.

Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, the theology thinktank.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.