Atheists: lazy reactionary skinflints?
By Chris Theobold
Like many others interested in belief, including non-religious beliefs, I was intrigued by this weekend’s articles proclaiming religious people in the UK to be, in general, more left-wing and politically progressive than the non-religious, as well as giving more in time and money to charity.
At first glance
My first instincts were that religion isn’t a particularly useful or helpful indicator of party political affiliation, and the evidence on volunteering isn’t clear cut. Moreover, I had doubts about the desirability of political parties
Starting with politics, at the national level it is fairly clear that there is a healthy variety of beliefs across the parties. Labour’s have gone from being led by someone who now directs a faith foundation he named after himself, to the admittedly agnostic Miliband the Younger. Ditto the LibDems, who have a mix on their ranks from the very religious Tim Farron, to the not-so-religious Dr Evan Harris. The Conservative party cannot be easily stereotyped either: For every Nadine Dorries, you have a dozen lukewarm MPs, and a contingent of prominent conservatives such as Iain Dale, Matthew Parris and Simon Heffer who are openly agnostic or simply self declared atheists.
On a supporter level, there are humanist and/or secularist groups within all the main parties, and arguably outside of Northern Ireland, no party has the religious vote, or that of specific denominations at least, in the bag.
Outside of politics, it easy to see that the two most recent senior members of the cloth in the UK, George Carey and Rowan Williams, are cut from very different political cloth (to stick with a metaphor unsuccessfully).
Anecdote is supported by serious studies, such as the work of the British Social Attitudes Survey, who in their 26th report look at how religious (or non-religious) belief is a weak measure of party affiliation, and religious respondents to questions of gay rights look markedly less progressive than their non-religious counterpart. (You can buy individual chapters of the report, but some of the headline stats are summarised here).
Much like other bloggers, such as Heresy Corner I was not so sure about what I found.
Taking a further look…
Looking at the full report, it reads like strategy document on how Labour can re-engage with the religious rather than a general statement on society. The project is being steered by a committee consisting of two Labour MPs, a Labour Peer, the head of the Labour affiliated Christian Socialist Movement, and a Labour councillor.
The next observation is that we’ve seen this information before.
This is not original research, but “original analysis” of data already in the public sphere, namely the Citizenship Survey issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. as well as international comparisons by looking at data from a European study.
And as Heresy Corner pointed out about the data on political affiliation, the actual data they work from has a different result to the headline: “[A] close reading of the report shows that religious believers were considerably more likely than the non-religious to call themselves right-wing”
Religious (“exclusivist” and “pluralist”):
Taking on their other point about differences in levels of volunteering and charitable giving, the British Humanist Association has previously taken a look at the data from a number of sources, including previous Citizenship Survey’s, and it is worth checking their website for other perspectives.
A particularly important point picked up on by the BHA – and effectively ignored by Demos in their conclusions – is the huge range of volunteering between different religious groups the statistics show. As the BHA say “The Citizenship Survey 2009-10 measures levels of civic engagement and formal volunteering in England. The Survey finds that 40% of the non-religious formally volunteer, compared to 41% of Christians and 26% of Muslims.” Again, same data, very different conclusions.
Then we come to their international comparisons, but again, I’m not so sure about the data here. They say: “we constructed a sample of western European countries with broadly similar social, cultural and religious contexts, including: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany (West), Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. We excluded northern European and eastern European countries because they have well-known social and religious differences (eg Scandinavian countries have higher levels of civic engagement on average, which would have skewed the results).
We also excluded Switzerland as a non-EU member. Italy was originally included but removed because it threw up anomalous results.”
Are the backgrounds of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK so similar? The omission of Scandinavian countries on the basis they volunteer more strikes me as odd as if you’re genuinely looking into people’s motivation for greater civic participation.
What if Demos are right?
Let’s assume for a moment Demos are completely right on this one though, they fail to engage with the underlying reasoning of their proposition. Crudely, if Christianity=liberal politics, wouldn’t that suggest 1950s a golden age of liberal and progressive politics?
Assuming they respond by saying we live with a gentler, fluffier, cuddlier species of Christianity then the fire and brimstone days of yore, on an international level, wouldn’t heavily Christian cultures be markedly more progressive and liberal than neighbouring less religious societies? I’m not sure that is the case.
How do you ‘measure’ belief?
I have strong doubts about nearly anystatistics on religion and belief. The idea of quantifying and measuring the belief of large groups of people is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in anything but the most general and vague categories, and as a result, the findings are general and vague to the point of near uselessness.
Even if there is a pattern, no causal relationship is established. Obviously I’ve mentioned contrary statistics, like those of the British Social Attitudes Survey, but I well as being impressive in its depth of coverage (in-depth interviews with thousands of respondents rather than simple polls of a few hundred), the BSA is also refreshingly honest about the limitations on statistics to do with religion and belief.
Why should we care?
Religious and non-religious groups can trade headline-grabbing stats all they like when they just aim to demonstrate their success or wallow in the schadenfreude of their competing denominations failure. That’s fine, but when questionable statistics are used to argue for the extension or protection of religious privilege they need to be challenged.
When one of our (generally retired) cassock wearing friends say that 70%+ of the population are Christian and therefore the government should advocate public policies that Torquemada would be proud of, firstly it is right to say they are probably wrong, and secondly even if 99% of the population were fundamentalist Christians, we need to firmly assert that this is still not a legitimate basis for offering any one group privilege in the eyes of the law, and the right to strip basic human rights from groups they scorn.
It is a pity that a report supported by a progressive think-tank with some respected and well regarded figures may well be footnoted every time one of the less congenial religious ‘leaders’ pleads for special treatment and state resources. Like most people, I vote on the basis of what candidates do and say – not if they pray, and if so, who they pray to – and to encourage otherwise is not a desirable objective.