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Just an amusing beach anecdote from World Youth Day: I met one of our seminarians who has just got back from Rio. They had a fantastic time with the Westminster group. I said to him, ‘Where were you staying’? And he said, ‘On the beach’. So I said, ‘I know you were all on the beach, but where were you staying for the other days?’ And he said, ‘On the beach!’ It seems that the Westminster crowd, instead of slumming it in the suburbs, were in a hotel right there on the beach itself, and they slept out on the beach for the vigil not because they needed to but just to get the vibe.

Anyway, that’s not my beach quote. Apparently the pilgrims got chatting to an atheist at the airport on the flight out to Rio. It was a friendly conversation, but they spooked him when they said that there was a big Catholic festival in Rio and that lots of young Catholics were flying out to participate. His response: ‘Oh well, I’ll just avoid them by staying on the beach the whole time’.

That’s my beach quote!

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As I think about starting my new work in university chaplaincy, I’m even more interested than I was before about what it’s like to be a young person in the UK today, what questions young people have, and what they do or don’t believe.

So I was drawn to the headline on the YouGov site: ‘British Youth Reject Religion’. I’ll copy the main points below and you can come to your own conclusions:

Religious figures have the least influence on the lives of young Britons – and more say religion is a force for evil than a force for good

In the 2011 Census, 59% of the population described themselves as Christian and only a quarter reported having no religion. But a new poll of young people for the Sun by YouGov finds that the place of religion in the lives of young Britons is smaller than ever.

YouGov asked 18-24 year olds which figures have influence on their lives, and religious leaders came out on bottom: only 12% feel influenced by them, which is far less than even politicians (38%), brands (32%) and celebrities (21%).

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The reputation of religion amongst young people is actually more negative than neutral: 41% agree that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world” and only 14% say it is a cause for good.

When asked if they believe in God, only 25% say they do. 19% believe in some non-Godlike “spiritual greater power” and a further 38% believe in no God or spiritual power whatsoever.

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Amongst believers, the most represented denominations are Church of England (13%), then Roman Catholic (9%) and Muslim (4%).

The low influence of religious leaders doesn’t surprise me, because so few young people have real human contact with them. But I’m really taken aback by the 41% agreeing that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world”.

You can see the full results here.

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Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

In case you missed these, here is Alain de Botton’s list of ten virtues unveiled in his Manifesto for Atheists.

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.

7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

Why these? Why now? Robert Dex explains:

De Botton, whose work includes a stint as a writer in residence at Heathrow Airport, said he came up with the idea in response to a growing sense that being virtuous had become “a strange and depressing notion”, while wickedness and evil had a “peculiar kind of glamour”.

He said: “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous, but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.”

My own response, which I sent to the Catholic Herald last week:

I like this list of virtues. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s certainly helpful. It prods you into making a sort of ‘examination of conscience’, and reminds you that there are other ways of living and relating and reacting.

There are obvious borrowings from classical philosophy, the great world religions, English manners, and the self-help books that line the shelves at WH Smiths.

Apart from the obvious absence of ‘God’, they don’t seem to have a particularly atheist spin.

If both believers and non-believers lived by these virtues, the world would be a much happier place; there would be less shouting and more laughter; relationships would be more stable, and we’d get more done in an average day. That’s surely something to celebrate!

But Francis Phillips thinks there is an implicit Pelagianism at work here:

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed.

The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own.

Do you like them? What’s missing?

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There have been lots of reports about the 2011 census statistics for religious affiliation, and how they compare with a decade before.

icons by scjody

Here is the actual summary from the Office for National Statistics:

The question on religious affiliation in the census was introduced in 2001 and is voluntary. The order of the main religion groups by size did not change between 2001 and 2011. Those affiliated with the Christian religion remained the largest group; 59 per cent (33.2 million) of usual residents in England and Wales.

This is a decrease of 13 percentage points since 2001 when 72 per cent (37.3 million) of usual residents stated their religion as Christian. It is the only group to have experienced a decrease in numbers between 2001 and 2011 despite population growth.

The second largest response category in 2011 was no religion. This increased 10 percentage points from 15 per cent (7.7 million) of usual residents in 2001, to 25 per cent (14.1 million) in 2011.

The next most stated religion in England and Wales was Muslim with five per cent (2.7 million) of usual residents stating their religion as Muslim in the 2011 Census; an increase of two percentage points since 2001 when three per cent (1.5 million) of usual residents stated that they were Muslim.

And the table:

England and Wales, 2001 and 2011, all usual residents

Thousand, per cent
Religion 2001 2011 Change
Number Per cent Number Per cent Number Percentage point
Christian 37,338 71.7 33,243 59.3 -4,095 -12.4
No religion 7,709 14.8 14,097 25.1 6,388 10.3
Muslim 1,547 3.0 2,706 4.8 1,159 1.8
Hindu 552 1.1 817 1.5 264 0.4
Sikh 329 0.6 423 0.8 94 0.2
Jewish 260 0.5 263 0.5 3 0.0
Buddhist 144 0.3 248 0.4 103 0.1
Other religion 151 0.3 241 0.4 90 0.1
Religion not stated 4,011 7.7 4,038 7.2 27 -0.5

The report goes on to look at the regional variations.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of residents affiliating themselves with the Christian religion declined in all England regions and Wales.

The highest percentage, 68 per cent (1.8 million) of people who responded that their religion was Christian was in the North East. This represents a 12 percentage point decrease on 2001, when this region also had the highest percentage of people who stated that their religion was Christian. London had the lowest percentage of usual residents stating their religion as Christian in both 2011 (48 per cent, 4.0 million) and 2001 (58 per cent, 4.2 million).

London had the highest percentage of all other religious affiliations except Sikh; Muslim (12 per cent, 1.0 million), Hindu (five per cent, 411,000), Jewish (two per cent, 149,000), Buddhist (one per cent, 82,000), and other religion (less than one per cent, 48,000). The West Midlands had the highest percentage of people who responded that their religion was Sikh (two per cent, 30,000).

These are huge changes. How does one react? For a completely unrepresentative but still interesting range of reactions see the Telegraph blog page, where Damian Thompson is depressed (‘It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism‘ – his emphasis!); Christina Odone still manages to find hope (Headline: ’2011 census shock revelation: Christianity is still the majority religion, and Britain is still a God-fearing country’); and atheist Tom Chivers wonders what it means for the nation’s ‘moral capital’:

What’s worth saying, though, is that as well as the (in many people’s opinion) negative social attitudes it [religion] can entrench, it also has clear and well-documented social benefits. Communities based around a local church (or mosque, or synagogue) are more likely to know each other, more likely to help each other in times of crisis, generally more likely to behave in socially positive ways.Religion, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, builds up “moral capital“: norms and practices that encourage cooperation within groups, by making people think of themselves as part of that group, rather than an individual. Some of those norms and practices (avoiding pork, or eating a biscuit that represents the Son of God) might seem bizarre to outsiders, but they bring the group closer together. It’s the flip-side of the us-and-them attitude; religion might or might not be bad for your attitude towards “them”, but it’s generally good for your attitude towards “us”.

Not that it’s exclusive to religion, of course. Regular social contact with your neighbours, the building of social and moral capital, the creation of a group in which you subsume your individuality and can work for a common good, can all be achieved in other means: it might sound a bit flippant, but football supporters might feel something similar. The British Humanist Association, which runs church-like regular meetings for humanists, and groups like the Quakers, with their emphasis on community rather than the “religious” side of religion, could build social and moral capital without the need for God or the supernatural. But the point is that right now, as Haidt says, that “religious believers … are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people” (in the United States, at least). This needs to be acknowledged. If religion really is waning in this country (and it seems to be: the number of Muslims is growing, but nowhere near fast enough to replace Christianity), then the challenge for atheists, humanists and others who think it’s possible to be good without God is to build a way of bringing communities together as Christianity has in Britain for centuries.

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Whenever there is a media debate about morality, social values, the culture wars, etc, it’s often assumed that the religious voice is a so-called ‘conservative’ one. But the recent Faithful Citizens report from the think-tank Demos presents evidence that people who belong to religious groups are instead more likely to take a left-of-centre position on a range of political issues. There are implications for Cameron’s Big Society too, as people of faith are more likely to volunteer and be politically engaged.

This is from the Demos website:

Religiosity has always been closely associated with conservatism: the Church of England is sometimes described as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’. In the United States, the Republican party and the religious right have become increasingly interdependent, but a similar trend has not occurred on this side of the Atlantic. This report, based on original analysis of the Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, investigates the different relationship between religion and politics in the UK and Europe.

The report presents two key findings. First, religious people are more active citizens – they volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues. Second, and more counter-intuitively, religious people are more likely to be politically progressive. They put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbours and when asked are more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.

Based on this, Faithful Citizens recommends that progressive politicians should work with faith groups on issues which they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work. Faith group members, the report argues, will be key to any future, election-winning, progressive coalition.

Jamie Doward writes:

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

The psychologist Oliver James got the debate going by suggesting that religious people are less likely to be left-wing than others, but this doesn’t seem to follow.

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton – whose latest book, Religion for Atheists, examines the consolations of faith for those who do not believe – argues that the internal dynamics of religions often confer progressive views on their followers, who find themselves at odds with today’s free-market society.

“The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual,” de Botton said. “In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.”

I haven’t read the de Botton book. He seems to be saying, putting it more simply, that religious people are on the whole less selfish than non-religious people, and that less selfish people are more likely to be progressive/left-leaning/anti-capitalist. Do you agree?  I’m sure there are one or two non-religious people, and one or two conservative/right-leaning/pro-capitalist people, who would like to take issue with these assumptions.

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Geothermal map of the Netherlands!

Many Dutch Christians are letting go of traditional beliefs, but holding onto the idea that there is ‘something’ out there, something just above the surface of reality, something more. Robert Pigott explains:

Professor Hijme Stoffels of the VU University Amsterdam says it is in such concepts as love that people base their diffuse ideas of religion.

“In our society it’s called ‘somethingism’,” he says. “There must be ‘something’ between heaven and earth, but to call it ‘God’, and even ‘a personal God’, for the majority of Dutch is a bridge too far.

“Christian churches are in a market situation. They can offer their ideas to a majority of the population which is interested in spirituality or some kind of religion.”

To compete in this market of ideas, some Christian groups seem ready virtually to reinvent Christianity.

They want the Netherlands to be a laboratory for Christianity, experimenting with radical new ways of understanding the faith.

Much of this is led by the Dutch clergy, many of whom are professed agnostics or atheists.

The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he’s not the sort of man to sugar the pill.

An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland.

It is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get”.

“Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,” Mr Hendrikse says. “No, for me our life, our task, is before death.”

Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing.

“When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.”

Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.

A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

None of this is new. When I was studying theology as an undergraduate in the 1980s (before going to seminary) various versions of this ‘agnostic Christianity’ were on offer. I wonder whether the attraction this kind of worldview is rising or declining in our present culture in Britain.

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes - which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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At the time of the Pope’s visit to Britain, you had the impression that any meaningful dialogue between Catholics and secular humanists about anything beyond the weather would have been unthinkable. Paul Sims writes at the New Humanist website about his experience of  trying to cross the great divide and actually enter into a conversation with Catholics.

I’ll be honest. Discussing gay adoption and condoms with Benedictine monks and spokesmen for Opus Dei is not something I normally find myself doing on a Tuesday evening. But there I was, at the invitation of Alan Palmer of the Central London Humanist Group, who had responded to a post I had written on the New Humanist blog, in which I’d recorded my concerns over the tone of the debate during the Pope’s UK visit. There are crucial disagreements between the Catholic Church and its opponents over issues such as AIDS, gay rights and child abuse, but, I asked, was the opportunity to debate these in danger of being buried beneath the headlines and protest slogans?

In my blog I’d mentioned by way of example the behaviour of sections of the audience at a pre-visit debate at London’s Conway Hall, when the Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling. Palmer, the organiser of that debate, read my post and invited me to a smaller discussion between Catholics and humanists, with the aim of discussing some of our key disagreements without the bellicose tone. I agreed.

Which is how a group of 25 of us, evenly balanced between faithful and faithless, came to meet in a room rented from the University of London near Euston. After brief introductions, the three main Catholic speakers – Austen Ivereigh, a journalist and former press secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster, Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei, and Fr Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk who featured in the BBC series The Monastery, together the founders of Catholic Voices, a group formed to speak up for the Catholic side in the media during the Papal visit – put forward their arguments on gay adoption, condoms and faith schools. The humanists then challenged them in an open discussion. In what felt like a particularly useful exercise, one of the humanists had to sum up the Catholic arguments, and one of the Catholics did the same for the humanist case.

As my first foray into the world of “inter-faith dialogue” (if we extend the definition to include the godless) I thought the meeting had been a good one. As you might expect, there was strong disagreement between the two sides, and I doubt anyone went home with their mind changed on any of the issues. But, while people had expressed strong opinions, the debate was conducted in a manner that meant it could continue over a drink afterwards. Given the way Catholics and humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Milwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day. With the religious and non-religious often talking past each other in the public square, it felt constructive for a group to meet and discuss their differences in an amiable fashion. For me, it served as a reminder that you can still get on with someone even if you disagree. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is easily forgotten amid the belligerent tone of the religion debate. And if we can find a way to talk calmly about our disagreements, perhaps it would be possible to find some common ground where we could agree.

Read the rest of his article to see how unhappy some of his secularist friends were about this whole project.

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What I mean really mean is: atheists are going out of existence because they are not breeding enough. Leaving aside the question of whether there is any truth in religious belief, this raises interesting questions about the apparent benefits of religion – at least for your genetic survival.

This is from a recent article by Jonathan Leake:

Atheists, watch out. Religious people have evolved to produce more children than non-believers, researchers claim, while societies dominated by non-believers are doomed to die out.

A study of 82 countries has found that those whose inhabitants worship at least once a week have 2.5 children each, while those who never do so have just 1.7 — below the number needed to replace themselves.

The academic who led the study argues that evolution, credited by atheist biologists such as Richard Dawkins as the process solely responsible for creating humanity, favours the faithful because they are encouraged to breed as a religious duty.

Michael Blume, a social science researcher at Jena University in Germany, said that over evolutionary timescales of hundreds or thousands of years, atheists have had fewer children and the societies they belong to are likely to disappear.

“It is a great irony, but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favour those with religious beliefs,” said Blume.

His arguments are in direct contradiction of evolutionary biologists such as Dawkins, who has argued that religions are like “viruses of the mind” which infect people and impose great costs in terms of money, time and health risks.

Blume’s work suggests the opposite: evolution favours believers so strongly that over time a tendency to be religious has become embedded in our genes. [Sunday Times, 02.01.11, p3]

Why is religion such a benefit? Because a religious tradition is better at allowing values, trust and cooperation to develop.

As well as the promotion of child-bearing by religious authorities, other important factors such as strong shared religious beliefs allow people to fit into a community, accept shared tasks and rules of behaviour. This ability to work together further raises the survival chances of children.

You can read Blume’s academic article “The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation” here. And in his blog, he quotes from the end of the article:

Evolutionary Theorists brought up far more scientific arguments – but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children. There is a certain irony in here: creationist parents unconsciously defend the reproductive success of their children and communities against evolutionist teachings, whereas some naturalists are trying to get rid of our evolved abilities of religiosity by quoting biology. But from an evolutionary as well as philosophic perspective, it may seem rather odd to try to defeat nature with naturalistic arguments.

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Go on, be brave – do the quiz! It only takes about two minutes. CLICK HERE. There are fifteen multiple choice questions. It’s about religious knowledge in general, although one or two questions touch on religious issues in the United States.

 

Street preachers in San Francisco

 

When you finish you see how smart you are compared to a cross-section of Americans, with a nice graph telling you what percentage of people share your level of knowledge (or ignorance, as the case may be).

Take our short, 15-question quiz, and see how you do in comparison with 3,412 randomly sampled adults who were asked these and other questions in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This national poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.

When you finish the quiz, you will be able to compare your knowledge of religion with participants in the national telephone poll. You can see how you compare with the overall population as well as with people of various religious traditions, people who attend worship services frequently or less often, men and women, and college graduates as well as those who did not attend college.

You can see the full results of the survey here. What’s fascinating is which groups come out on top. Catholics do pretty badly…

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

religious-knowledge-01 10-09-28

On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.

religious-knowledge-02 10-09-28

Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own. Many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

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I had an article published this weekend about the faith of Jean-Paul Sartre — his nominally Catholic upbringing, his atheistic philosophy, and the subtle shifts that took place in his thinking towards the end of his life.

Jean Paul Sartre y Simone de Beauvoir (lomo) by OscarDC.

The tomb of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Cimetière du Montparnasse

I can’t copy it all here, but here are a few lines about his early life:

Sartre was a Catholic. His mother didn’t have a strong faith, but she had him baptised. When his father died – Sartre was only 15 months old – he and his mother went to live with her parents. Sartre’s maternal grandmother was more involved with her faith, so there was some rhythm of church attendance and Mass-going for the young boy. He remembered the feeling that God was watching him all the time, especially when he was naughty; and the pain in his knees when he was forced to kneel in church.

But God gradually drifted out of his consciousness, and religious indifferentism became the background to his growing up. By the time of his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in 1945 he could say ‘existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position’. Much of this was posturing: he softens this statement in the lines that follow. Yet there is no doubt about the powerful and largely negative influence he had on the faith of many young Catholics in this period. I admire much of Sartre’s philosophy, but I am not naïve enough to think that his words or his lifestyle were simply a force for good in post-war European society.

Sartre was a notorious atheist, attacking a particular conception of God. It’s a shame that he didn’t go deeper in his exploration of how God was understood in the tradition of Christian philosophy and theology:

He had plenty of opportunities for discussion over the years. Catholic heavy-weights like Marcel, Maritain and Gilson were in dialogue with existentialism. Stalag XIID, his prisoner of war camp, was full of French priests, some of them serious thinkers. He gravitated to them as fellow intellectuals. They taught him Gregorian chant, and he gave them talks on Heidegger. If only it had been the other way round, and he had had a few existentialist drinking songs up his sleeve, to sing in exchange for some lectures on Aquinas’s understanding of God as Pure Act.

There were nevertheless some shifts that took place later in his life:

There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.

In these final philosophical reflections Sartre seems to repudiate much of his life’s work and embrace ideas such as the need for an objective morality, the transcendent end of the human person, and a quasi-messianic notion of how society can find perfection. When pressed, he insisted that these conversations did indeed express his opinions, and that they were not foisted upon him by Lévy.

I stayed in Paris for a French course a few years ago and went to visit his grave. He’s buried, now joined by Simone de Beauvoir, in the Montparnasse cemetery. I prayed for them both. I knew the story of a death-bed conversion was just a myth, but I also knew about the intellectual movement that went on in those later years. It gave me enough grounds to hope that he might, just possibly, have been open to the Lord’s mercy at the very end of his life, as he went to meet the One he had denied so many times. [The Tablet, 20 Feb 2010]

stalag xii d by duesentrieb.

Stalag XIID - the prisoner of war camp where Sartre conversed with many French priests

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If Mary and Joseph were turned away this evening from the local bed and breakfast, where would they end up? Quite possibly in a bus stop. This is the suggestion made by ChurchAds.Net, which wants to re-tell the nativity story in a modern, secular context. The aim of the campaign is to reach out to the 88% of adults in Britain who hardly know the Christmas story, and to remind them that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’.

I only saw the poster for the first time yesterday evening, driving through West Hampstead. Here is it (the artist is Andrew Gadd):

I like the image. It’s unsettling and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t undermine the more traditional depictions of the nativity. The tenderness of the scene remains, but the vulnerability and precariousness of their existence comes to the fore. Some people are curious; some are more interested in looking out for the bus; one person kneels in worship. The plastic carrier bag is crucial – visually, and perhaps theologically.

This is what it means for God to come amongst us, for the Word to be made flesh. He takes on the ‘condition’ as well as the ‘nature’ of humanity. He doesn’t just live (in the abstract), he actually shares our life, however dark or dangerous that life may be.

Years ago I heard of a film about the birth of Jesus set in a housing estate in New York. The Angel Gabriel coming to this American teenager. The Saviour born into the rough-edged reality of twentieth-century urban life. I was never able to track the film down. Please leave a comment if you know what it was called.

I like the sentimentality of Christmas; the nostalgia and the traditions; even the contemporary bling. But it’s good to have a few images within our culture that help us to remember that it was real; and that it is still real.

[Olivia has since sent me a link to this wonderful article (with photos) about the history of crib-making, with some recent examples of cribs that have been set in the contemporary urban landscape.]

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Is religious education a form of brainwashing? Should children be free to make their own decisions about fundamental matters of faith? These questions are provoked by the new poster sponsored by the British Humanist Association. [See it here.] Two gloriously happy children hold their hands in the air as if they are about to do a cartwheel. The main text reads: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” And floating in the background are the various labels under attack: “Buddhist child. Agnostic child. Protestant child. Humanist child. Catholic child. Atheist child…”

Candelaria religious education 1 + 2 by John Donaghy.

Religious education in Candelaria

I have an article in Timesonline in response to this. I’ll copy most of it below, but put it in quote marks just to acknowledge that it was not written for this blog. I give four reasons why the call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naive:

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonymous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. If, in effect, you say to your children, “I don’t care enough about these values or convictions to share them with you”, or “they are important to me but not important in themselves”, then you are presenting them with a very particular world-view. In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

To say to a child, “I don’t mind – you choose!” is to give the child the strongest possible impression that the available options are all equally significant, which is to say that none is uniquely significant. So this apparently ‘soft’ form of neutrality suggested in the poster is actually a ‘hard’ form of relativism which relegates religious and philosophical questions to the periphery of human interest.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself. If this is not communicated in some way, then the love of the parents, however profound, will become distorted, because the children will see themselves as valuable to their parents but not valuable as persons in their own right. It doesn’t matter how this innate value is framed (‘human dignity’, ‘the sanctity of life’, etc.) as long as it is articulated somehow.

Human autonomy, rightly cherished by secular humanists, needs some notion of intrinsic human dignity to support it – otherwise it has no foundation and no meaning. So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels

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Guardian by goodonpaper.I had a bit of a media day yesterday, so to save me blogging, here are some links, just in case you are interested.

You are probably sick of discussions about the relics of St Thérèse by now. Simon Jenkins wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that was very dismissive of the custom of venerating relics, and even more dismissive of the rationality of Christian belief. You can read my response here.

And at lunchtime I was involved in a debate on Radio 4 (You and Yours) about the apparent decline of religious practice in the UK, and particularly about the place of institutional religion in peoples lives. It was a live phone-in, with input from panelists representing various religions, and an atheist who edits a popular philosophy magazine. It’s long – an hour. If you have the time you can listen here. [But the link will die after a week - I presume on Tuesday 6th October.]

telephone dial by Leo Reynolds.

When it is well chaired and well sieved, I like the phone-in format for this kind of discussion. You get a real feel for the cross-section of opinions out there. It wasn’t just people giving out about their beliefs; they were talking about how their religious practice or non-practice had influenced their lives, what it meant to them, how they had come to faith, or why they had left it. And especially about this question of whether faith can just be a personal, private conviction, or whether it needs expression and support in a community, in an institution.

There wasn’t much conversation about the content of what people believe – more about the human satisfactions or not of belonging to a religious community. But it was worthwhile nevertheless. See what you think.

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