Tag Archives: Religious belief

Belief and morality

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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Atheists aren’t shrill – just disgusting?

Perhaps the common hostile reaction to the so-called “new atheists” (or gnus) is more a matter of the disgust in the eye or brain of the beholder than any “stridency” or “shrillness” on the part of the atheist. Well, that’s what the recently published work of Ritter and Preston suggests (see  Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs).

They used groups of Christians as subjects in two experiments to test the effect of reading material from their own group (bible) and outgroup (Muslim and atheist) sources on feelings of disgust. This was evaluated by rating  responses to  a drink before and after copying a passage from these sources.

From the paper’s abstract:

“In Experiment 1, Christian participants showed increased disgust after writing a passage from the Qur’an or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but not a control text. Experiment 2 replicated this effect, and also showed that contact with an ingroup religious belief (Christians copying from the Bible) did not elicit disgust. Moreover, Experiment 2 showed that disgust to rejected beliefs was eliminated when participants were allowed to wash their hands after copying the passage, symbolically restoring spiritual cleanliness. Together, these results provide evidence that contact with rejected religious beliefs elicits disgust by symbolically violating spiritual purity.”

I guess this explains this strange knee-jerk effect I have observed among Christian apologists. Just the mention of the word “Dawkins” in any discussion sends them off at a tangent. The reactions are clearly emotional, and not rational. So it does seem logical that these emotional responses utilise common intuitions or feelings – and disgust is the obvious one.

Now, I don’t suggest this phenomenon is restricted to only Christians, or even just the religious. (Although i suspect religious believers may be more prone to emotions related to purity and disgust).  I think we are all prone to react emotionally rather than logically when encountering anything conflicting with our beliefs. So I think the authors are right to conclude that disgust plays a role in the protection of beliefs, especially beliefs which hold moral value.

This paper is discussed in more detail by  Tom Rees at Epiphenom (see Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?). His discussion includes figures from the paper.

Perhaps next time I find a Christian apologists getting distracted by Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion during a discussion I should recognise they are suffering from disgust, rather than producing any logical argument. Maybe I should then suggest they go away and wash their hands before continuing our discussion.

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Religion in public life – two approaches

Two different approaches to the problem of religion in public life were in the news recently. I think they are worth contrasting.

1. Copenhagen Declaration

This was a document accepted World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010. Some people worry about atheists organising and making declarations. it seems to them a bit too much like religious dogma. However, I think this declaration is great. One could quibble at the edges, change a few things, ask for a few deletions or additions. But, I think as as a general declaration it really accords with the Universal declaration of Human Rights. I can’t see why any reasonable person could disagree with it. You can download the Copenhagen_Declaration as a pdf file.  It reads: Continue reading

Religion in the public square

Or do I mean irreligion in the public square? Same thing really.

I refer to the open discussion of religious ideas in the “public square.” That means ideas can be put up for consideration and subjected to open support or criticism. The same as our ideas on politics and sport. I am using the dictionary, not literal, definition of “public square” as “relating to or concerning the people at large or all members of a community.”

Don’t we already do that? Yes, I agree. But some people are unhappy about it. There is an idea around that religion doesn’t get a fair go. That it should be able to promote its claims and ideas without being subjected to criticism. The United Nations has passed a resolution against the “defamation of religion”. Ireland has reintroduced a blasphemy law. You get the picture.

militant atheists

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