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We humans are mentally very complex – and often contradictory in our beliefs and actions. This must be a real problem for sociologists who often rely on surveys and self-reporting of beliefs.

I have often wondered about the reliability and interpretation of survey data on religious beliefs. In particular the religion question in our own Census statistics. So I was intrigued by the results presented in the Ispos MORI survey Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011.” This specifically questioned people who recorded their religion as “Christian” in the 2011 UK Census.

Two questions were interesting:

1: What do you mean by “Christian.”

The questions was “Which is the one statement that best describes what being a Christian means to you personally?” Nine choices (including “prefer not to say” were provided. The figure below shows the responses.

Interesting!

Most people (65%) think the word means something about how they were brought up or their attempts to be good! And 40% simply see it as a description of their wish to be good!

While only a little over 20% interpret the word to have anything to do with the teachings of Christ or their acceptance of him!

I can’t help thinking that people use their religious “affiliation” as something to do with their reputation, rather than any meaningful understanding of ideology or specific teachings or beliefs.

2: Where do you get your morals?

Here the question asked: “When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following if any, do you most look to for guidance?” Seven choices (including “prefer no to say”) were provided. Results below.

Again, interesting!

Despite declaring themselves as “Christian” only 16% got their morality from Christian teachings and belief. This certainly undermines the argument of militant Christians who argue that because Britain is a “Christian Country” it should not have laws against discrimination against homosexuals, women, etc. And it undermines their argument for retention of existing Christian privileges in policy.

Most people claim they rely on their own inner moral sense. Personally I think that even many providing other reasons actually also rely on their own inner moral sense. How else, for example, do they determine which religious teachings and beliefs to accept and which to reject?

At first sight these two results appear contradictory. The largest fraction of Christians self-identify because they think that means they try to be good. On the other a similar fraction admit they don’t get their morality from Christian teachings or beliefs!

Conclusions

I can’t help thinking that when people answer the religion question in surveys and the census they are seeing it as a matter of reputation, not of community or beliefs. They wish to be known as good people and think self-identifying as Christian will achieve that. perhaps this attitude also explains why so few people will self-identify as “atheist” – preferring something less harmful to their reputation like “non-religious.”

This presents an educational problem for those who work to remove religious privilege in society and ensure a secular state. It also is an educational problem for those who wish that atheism, humanism, and similar non-religious identification were more acceptable. The facts are that religion has no monopoly on being good and this message needs more awareness.

Finally, the results certainly undermine  the way that militant Christian spokespersons make judgemental statements on social attitudes, argue for retention of religious privilege and attempt to justify religious discrimination against various social groups.

These leaders actually do not represent the views and beliefs of the people they claim to – those who self-identify as “Christian.”

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