December 18, 2011

#GnuAtheists may have point at times; wronger at others

Guardian columnist Julian Baggini argues on the basis of an admittedly self-selecting survey that, even for non-fundamentalist types, religion indeed seems to be about doctrine first, and practice/religious socialization second:
So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the "new" variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs. Yes, I know you can define "supernatural" in such a way that turning water into wine isn't supernatural after all, but when atheists use this word, their argument is not based on an unjustified linguistic or metaphysical stipulation. They are simply pointing out that religions maintain that things happen which cannot be explained simply in terms of physical laws and human agency, and on this it appears most churchgoers agree.

There are some areas where the mainstream belief is not quite traditional. Most accept that although the Bible refers to God as "He", God is neither male nor female. Only a minority – albeit a very large one – believes in biblical infallibility, which is not the same as its factual accuracy, since most reject a reading of Genesis as history. Nonetheless, even in these areas one might be less pleased that these are no longer majority views than disturbed by how many still hold them.
Remember, this is all in Britain, which, while religiously less liberal than the UK, is more liberal religiously than the US. And, almost half the people from the primary survey were Church of England, likely to be more liberal in belief than Catholics or other Protestants.

The biggie? 68 percent said belief and practice had equal weight, 23 percent said belief had more weight, and 9 percent said practice had more weight.

The even bigger biggie? A whopping, I'd say for this, 45 percent said salvation is through Jesus only.

Baggini is therefore right in part about Gnu Atheists. However, upon further reflection and re-reading of the survey responses, I think he's pushing the case a bit. A more honest, or less overarching claim, would be to say that most Christians are quasi-Marcionites. If it was written about in the Old Testament, whether creation, OT miracle claims or whatever, Christians are more ready to write it off as not literal or not true.

However, American Gnus are shown to be wrong, wrong, wrong about something else. Beyond claims of a "surge" in American atheism, Gnus want to claim atheism is broad spread in Old Europe. I think the "nullius salvus" response, if it more broadly applies than just in a self-selective survey, shows that Christian belief is still relatively strong.

At least about the Old UK, they may be hugely wrong.

 And, there's still that matter of PR and messaging.

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