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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.