Belief and morality

By Ken Perrott 03/05/2012

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.


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!


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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0 Responses to “Belief and morality”

  • The results aren’t really all that surprising. The disparity between those that call themselves ‘christian’ (for whatever reason, typically the way they want others to see them) and actual, practising devout ‘christians’ is an ever-widening gulf. Oh for the day that religion dries up and is consigned to history!

  • As ShadowMind says – not surprising. Graph 1 is what has been recognized for a long time and is simply a reflection on semantics and not on Christianity per se. There is no getting away from the fact that Christianity described by the Bible begins with a belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I expect if the question had been asked “Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?” or something similar then you may have had assent by only ~20-30% – hence my comment about semantics. This, then, makes it very hard to draw any meaningful conclusion from question 2. It is also the sort of question (and here I agree wholeheartedly with your first few sentences) that can be interpreted in many many ways. For example, it is theologically reasonable to answer “my own inner moral sense” because Christianity involves the transformation of character under the guidance of God. Sorry Ken, your conclusions wrt Graph 2 don’t necessarily follow.
    btw – does the UK still have laws that discriminate agains women as you suggest? I’d be surprised.

  • Kiwisiki – the results in graph 1 may have been recognised in academia – but they have been ignored by those militant Christian leaders and spokespersons who argue that the Census shows that the UK is a “Christian country” and claim that as support for the specific prejudices and retention of privilege they argue for politcally. They also use the census data in their ranting against seculariusm – wrongly.

    Incidentally, this survey did actually ask questions about these specific political attitudes and the results do not support those leaders and spokespersons.

    Yes – the daa in the graph does support your suggestion that only about 20% of the self-identifying Chrsitians understand the term as related to acceptance of Christ and his teachings.

    As far as I know the UK does not have laws allowing discrimination against women and homosexuals. In fact they seem to have recently developed some more forcefull anti-discrimination laws. These are what the militant Christian leaders are campaigning against – they wanht the freedom to discriminate. Currently they have several appeals of legal UK rulings before the Europenan courts.

    Why reject any meaningful conclusion from Fig 2? Surely it does show that when asked even the self-identifying Chrsitian recognises the inners source of their morality (and cultural influences inputting that). As this is also the scientific assessment of how we get our morality I am not suprised, except that I might have expected more people arguing for their religion as the source – especially as they had equated “being good” with the self-description as Christian.

    I think also my suggestion that perhaps people shy away from some of the descriptors of non-belief because of repoutation is relevant.

    True – theologians may come up with a way of handling these facts – that’s their job, to invent arguments to make their beliefs relevant. They start from a conclusion and develop their arguments accordingly.

    That is why theology doesn’t exactly have a good reputation.

  • re-laws against etc….ahhh got it, sorry misunderstood you.

    My point re fig 2 is that I am skeptical about conclusions drawn given that there are likely many, perhaps even contradictory, reasons people answer a certain way (often a difficulty in social science questionnaires).

    As for your two sentences beginning “True -…” . There are times you could substitute the word “social scientist” for theologian. Maybe this is one of them…

    • I appreciate the real problems with surveys but I guess there really isn’t a better way. One of the reasons we see sociology as a “soft” science.

      I agree motivated reasoning is not just a habit of theologians – we all do it. We are after all not a rational species but a rationalizing one.

      I hope that sociologists would have ways of checking and peer review to reduce subjectivity so see them as somewhat more scientific than theologians (just don’t trust them at all).

      My personal reaction to the data was that it fitted in with my reading on the science of morality.  If anything I was surprised that more people didn’t claim a religious source of morality. Maybe that just underlines that self reporting as a Christian does not identify belief in most cases.

      News reports indicate that theological reaction to this survey was hostile – at least from leaders and spokespersons prepared to comment.  
      I am sure my local theological friends would find plenty of excuses to reject these findings.