It was with great glee that Richard Dawkins recently revealed the results of a survey he had commissioned into ‘Census Christians’, but in doing so he opened a window of opportunity to publicly discuss faith and what it means to be Christian.
The focus of Dawkins’ research were ‘Census Christians’ – those who self-identify on the census and other polls as Christians, even though they may not attend church, read the Bible, pray or engage in any other ‘Christian’ activity from one year to the next. He wanted to find proof that ‘Christian’ was just a label people chose more out of habit than because of any genuine faith, and the evidence was there for the picking:
- When asked why they think of themselves as Christian, the research found that fewer than three in ten (28%) say one of the reasons is that they believe in the teachings of Christianity.
- The majority (60%) have not read any part of the Bible, independently and from choice, for at least a year.
- Over a third (37%) have never or almost never prayed outside a church service, with a further 6% saying they pray independently and from choice less than once a year.
- Apart from special occasions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms, half (49%) had not attended a church service in the previous 12 months.
Anticipating the inevitable criticism from ‘the religious community’, Dawkins appeared on the Today programme defending his findings and, amongst other things, stating that ‘an astonishing number’ (65%) could not name the first book of the New Testament. The joke was on him though when, thanks to his interlocutor Giles Fraser, he stumbled over the full title of the atheists’ ‘bible’ On the Origin of Species.
Of course, as both Dawkins and Fraser are well aware, the memorisation of book titles doth not a Christian make. Attempts to teach Christianity by rote are doomed to failure, trivialising the power both of the words and of the God to whom they point.
While the figures, when you actually study them properly, aren’t as doom-laden as Dawkins would like – 22% of the sample, for instance, listed ‘I have accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour’ as one of the ‘things being a Christian means to them personally’, which I’d be happy to bet Dawkins expected to be far, far lower – they by no means indicate a thriving, engaged Christian community worshipping in every corner of the UK.
There is scope and space to discuss apologetics and theology on prime time TV, on national radio and in every newspaper.
What they do tell us, though, is that despite the social, sexual and scientific transformations of the last century, a large percentage of the British public retain a sense that God exists and that belief in Him is a good thing.
Dawkins and his fellow ‘angry atheists’ have, ironically, opened a window of opportunity during which discussions about faith, its role in public life, and what it really means to be a Christian (or an adherent of another faith) are at the forefront of public discussion. There is scope and space to discuss apologetics and theology on prime time TV, on national radio and in every newspaper. There are debates and books and articles and plays seriously considering what it means to believe in God in the 21st Century, and the culture of toleration means that every voice can be heard.
This window will not be open forever, and it is vital that we use it wisely. Christians at the top of their game in whatever field we are called to need to be using our gifts, talents and opportunities wisely to answer the tough questions as they arise at church, at work, or down the pub. If you feel ill-equipped to give a reason for the hope you possess, why not start sharpening your tools by helping out at an Alpha course or brushing up on some apologetics resources until you are confident in your faith, your ability to articulate it, and your certainty of its reasonableness? And give some thought to the place of faith – of Christianity – in public life. What role should we as Christians have in shaping public policy? What role should you play?
Let’s use this time wisely, and see what we can do to start to turn the statistics around.
Jennie Pollock is communications editor for a network of churches in the UK, and is currently completing an MA in Philosophy. She blogs at newsong40.wordpress.com and tweets as @missjenniep. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the Newfrontiers Theology blog.