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Atheist in memory lapse and slavery shock

Following a week of attacks, the evolutionary biologist responds to his critics

Some years ago a colleague was admitted to hospital and a nurse came over to her bedside to fill in a form with her personal details. "Religion?" "None." Later my colleague overheard a pair of nurses gossiping about her. "She doesn't look like a nun."

The absurd presumption that everyone has a religion, almost as a part of their identity, to be ticked off on a form the way one ticks the boxes for sex, eye colour and known allergies, is ubiquitous in our society and it has yet to be expunged from our census forms.

The census of 2001 seemed to show that over 70 per cent of British people were Christian. This figure has been triumphantly and repeatedly invoked by politicians, prelates and apologists for religion, in apparently persuasive justification for a strong Christian presence in our governance and resource allocation. The census showed that we are still a Christian country, so it is claimed to be appropriate that all schoolchildren in England and Wales are required by law to take part in a "daily act of worship of a broadly Christian character"; right that 26 bishops should have seats reserved for them in parliament, where they influence political decisions in very Christian ways - on discriminatory faith schools, on abortion and on assisted suicide, for instance. Not just the unelected bishops: members of the Commons with an eye to re-election must heed the Christian voice and curry favour with the powerful Christian demographic. Seventy per cent of the population wants Christian policies, and 70 per cent cannot be gainsaid.

Many of us suspected that the vaunted 70 per cent hid an embarrassment of non-Christian, non-religious vaguery. "Well, our family has always been Christian and I was christened; I'm not a Jew or a Hindu and certainly not a Muslim, I love singing carols, Jesus was obviously a good person, just look at that gorgeous sunset, and there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, so . . . yes, I'd better tick the Christian box."

Naturally people are free to call themselves whatever they like, and if you want to call yourself Christian even though you don't believe in God and have only the haziest idea of Christian teaching, that is none of my business. However, it very much is my business, and every other citizen's business, if the recorded demographic strength of Christianity in the country is falsely inflated by a very broad and loose definition of what it means to be Christian, and if that swollen figure is then hijacked and exploited by partisans of a much more narrowly defined Christianity.

If you ticked the Christian box because (like me) you are moved to tears by Schubert and the Milky Way, and therefore consider yourself a "spiritual" person, your "spirituality" should not be used to justify bishops in the Lords, or "All Things Bright and Beautiful" in schools. Ditto if you ticked the box because (again like me) you have a nostalgic affection for the Book of Common Prayer and King's College chapel.

It was for this reason, among others, that many of us campaigned to have the religion question omitted from the 2011 census. Unfortunately we failed. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) therefore fell back on plan B. This was to commission a large and comprehensive opinion poll, in the week immediately following last year's census, to find out exactly what people who ticked the Christian box believe, what lay behind their decision to accept the Christian label, and their attitudes to Christian-based legislation. Can politicians and others plausibly quote the percentage calling itself Christian as ammunition in arguments about religion in schools, homosexual rights, abortion and voting by the Lords Spiritual?

The survey was done by Ipsos MORI in accordance with its strict rules to ensure accuracy and impartiality, and on 14 February we published the results in the form of two press releases and a link to the underlying data (all of which is now on together with links to the extensive press coverage). The main conclusions are very much as we suspected. First, although the official census figures have not yet been published, our sample suggests that the percentage that describes itself as Christian has dropped from 72 to 54 (plus or minus 2 points).

That is a significant finding in its own right, but more telling is how small a proportion of even that 54 per cent believes in Christianity in any sense that could reasonably justify giving Christianity privileged influence in public life. In all that follows, it is important to remember (a retired bishop with whom I debated on television this past week got this wrong) that the percentages quoted are not percentages of the population at large, but percentages of the 54 per cent who self-identified as Christian. I will call them "Census Christians".

To pick out a handful of Ipsos MORI's findings, only a third of the Census Christians ticked the Christian box because of their religious beliefs. Not counting weddings, baptisms and funerals, half of them hadn't attended a church service at all in the previous year, 16 per cent hadn't attended in the past ten years, and a further 12 per cent had never done so. Only 44 per cent of Census Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Only a third believe that He was physically resurrected.

Why then did they think of themselves as Christian? Ipsos MORI asked them: "Which of the following statements best describes what being a Christian means to you personally?" Favourite, with 40 per cent, was "I try to be a good person" (well, don't we all, but some of us good people are Muslims, some are Jews, some are Hindus and rather a lot are atheists). Second favourite, with 24 per cent, was "It's how I was brought up" (indeed - I, too, was brought up Christian and I was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England, so I guess that makes me a cultural Christian). Only 15 per cent of Census Christians selected "I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour" and 7 per cent chose "I believe in the teachings of Jesus" as the best description of what being a Christian meant to them personally.

“I try to be a good person" came top of the list of "what being a Christian means to you", but mark the sequel. When the Census Christians were asked explicitly, "When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following, if any, do you most look to for guidance?" only 10 per cent chose "Religious teachings and beliefs". Fifty-four per cent chose "My own inner moral sense" and a quarter chose "Parents, family or friends". Those would be my own top two and, I suspect, yours, too.

The bottom line is that anybody who advocates a strong place for religion in government cannot get away with claiming that ours is numerically a Christian country as a basis for giving religion privileged influence. This conclusion is further borne out by part two of our Ipsos MORI survey. Census Christians were asked explicitly about their attitudes to various social issues as well as their views on religion in public life. Seventy-four per cent of them said that religion should not have special influence on public policy. Only 12 per cent thought it should. Only 2 per cent disagreed with the statement that the law should apply to everyone equally regardless of their religious beliefs (so much for the Archbishop of Canterbury's opinion that sharia law in Britain is "unavoidable", and for attempts to exempt Christians from compliance with equalities legislation). More Census Christians oppose than support the idea of the UK having an official state religion, and the same applies to the presence of bishops in the House of Lords.

Less than a quarter of Census Christians think state schools should teach children a religious belief. Sixty-one per cent support equal rights for gay people and 59 per cent support assisted suicide for the terminally ill, given certain safeguards. And for those MPs worried about re-election and the need to appeal to the allegedly powerful Christian lobby, 78 per cent of Census Christians say that Christianity has no or not much influence on how they vote.

Now finally to my joke title. During one of the many broadcast discussions of our survey, I used a vignette to illustrate how poorly acquainted Census Chris­tians seem to be with their Bible. Ipsos MORI asked them to identify the first book of the New Testament from a four-way choice of Matthew, Genesis, Acts of the Apostles and Psalms, plus "Don't know" and "Prefer not to say". Only 35 per cent correctly chose Matthew; 39 per cent didn't even guess, and the rest chose various wrong answers.

This is a truly stunning result. It is as though 64 per cent of those who self-identify as devotees of English literature were unable to pick out the author of Hamlet from a four-way choice of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer and Homer. It's not that ignorance of the sequence of the arbitrarily assembled canon of biblical scrolls matters in itself. The point is that this is an indicator of how utterly out of touch with Christian culture modern British people are, even those who signed on as Christian in the census.

How would a Christian apologist deal with this devastating result? Dr Giles Fraser was in the radio discussion, and he dealt with it by going to extraordinary lengths to deflect attention in another direction altogether. He scored what he obviously thought was a "Gotcha!" point by asking me whether I knew the full title of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. He meant including the long, Victorian subtitle. I confidently said I knew it because, rather surprisingly, I do. But I then had one of those momentary lapses of memory that become increasingly common around my age. I stammered out an approximation, but was unable to recall the exact wording until I was cycling home and no longer under the pressure of speaking in a radio studio: "On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection: or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life."

Canon Fraser (whom, incidentally, I greatly admire for his principled stand on the St Paul's tent protest) cannot seriously have thought the two cases were remotely comparable. The Census Christians were not asked to recite anything from memory, merely to pick out Matthew from a choice of four. Even if they had been asked to recite it, "Matthew" is just one word, while the full title of Darwin's great work has 21. The comparison is so inappropriate that, far from being a real gotcha, Fraser's diversionary tactic can only be seen as a measure of desperation, designed to conceal the embarrassing ignorance of their holy book shown by 64 per cent of Census Christians. In any case Darwin's Origin, I hope I don't have to add, is nobody's holy book.

The argument was the first in an astonishing series of diversionary moves in the national press this past week, some of them amounting to outright smear tactics. Perhaps the most absurd (of many) was the Sunday Telegraph hack who trumpeted a story that my remote ancestors had owned slaves in Jamaica. Well, that settles it: Dawkins is an atheist and his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves. Gotcha! Case closed.

I can quite understand why those whose aim is to protect at all costs the privileged status of Christianity in UK public life would want to deflect attention from the very significant findings of this important Ipsos MORI research. These are facts, not opinions, they aren't going to go away, and no amount of game-playing or smear tactics or irrelevant digression is going to change them.

In modern Britain, not even Christians put Christianity anywhere near the heart of their lives, and they don't want it put at the heart of public life either. David Cameron and Baroness Warsi, please take note.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.