Richard Dawkins appeared on the Today programme recently to say that the finding of the 2001 census that 70% of the population identify themselves as Christian cannot be used to claim that Britain remains a Christian country. He based his argument on the results of an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by his Foundation. This reveals that only a very small percentage of those who see themselves as Christian say it is because they believe in what Christianity teaches. They say it is because they have Christian parents or were baptised or go to Church sometimes. This leads Dawkins to say that the claim that we are a Christian country is false and that, therefore, the privileged place of Christianity in education, the House of Lords and so forth cannot be justified. Nothing could better illustrate the one-dimensional nature of his thinking.
On the one hand Dawkins labours the bleedin’ obvious. It is hardly a revelation that few people hold or understand Christian beliefs in any detail. Of course they do not – it is quite possible that this has always been the case. And it is equally obvious that we are not a Christian country in the sense that we once were. For many centuries Christianity provided the world-view that informed and underpinned the whole culture. This was maintained and expressed in the power and supremacy of the Church, first of Rome, and later, of England. Today we are a country of various cultures and beliefs and organised Christian faith is declining. This is so even though some features of the past remain – the establishment of the Church of England for example. Fewer people are going to Church, fewer people listen to the Church and fewer are serious about Christian faith as a personal commitment. In short, the Church is obviously facing difficulties and all Dawkins does is raise an issue which all church people should already be aware of and concerned about. And yes, it is questionable how long the Church of England can expect to remain established in such circumstances.
But on the other hand, Dawkins’ notion of Christianity is so poor and limited. He appears to believe it is mainly or exclusively a matter of individuals agreeing to a set of teachings, that it stands or falls as a set of propositions of a quasi-scientific kind. He and others of the ‘new atheists’ seem to concentrate their fire on the most unreflective versions of Christianity – the kind that thinks faith really can be adequately represented as a set of static credal statements. Of course Christianity involves beliefs and has generally involved creeds, but it is also, and rather more, a tradition of thought and practice; an encounter with what Christians call ‘the living God’; a way of living inspired by the life and death of Jesus Christ. It is the pursuit of a mystery, a quest for the real, for that which language and belief (in the narrow sense) cannot grasp . It is far more about faith as awareness, trust and action than as proposition.
When Dawkins argues against the Christian faith he is opposing a contemporary version of Christianity that has arisen in response to the desire for scientific certainty. This is a strange contest between two equally reductionist tendencies.
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