So after weeks of heavy breathing, Julian’s Heathen’s Progress arrives at what we already knew – that believers actually do believe the tenets of their religion.
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.
Yes…just as the dread “new” atheists have said all along. Believers who don’t really believe are the minority, not the majority.
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…but then that would include Julian himself, for instance in his article in the Norwegian magazine Fritanke (not to be confused with the Swedish publisher Fritanke!) in March 2009:
I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.
However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.
I think Julian owes “the new atheists” an apology.
It seems to me that these results, if truly indicative of what people actually believe, are highly significant for the present debate about religion. The challenge to the likes of Karen Armstrong – which I’d love to hear her response to – is to accept that when they claim religion isn’t really about literal belief, they are advocating a view about how religion ought to be in its best form which just doesn’t describe the reality on the ground. They are defending an ideal of religion, a possibility that is not the normal actuality. (Although I do have a potential response to this they could offer, which I’ll come back to in a future post.) Therefore when responding to atheist criticisms, the accusation cannot be that they misrepresent religion. The best that can be said is that atheists focus too much on religion as it is most usually found and should pay more attention to the better forms. Whether that is a good enough reply is the subject for another argument.
Again, all this is what the gnus have been saying all along – and getting a lot of crap for saying, from Julian among others. Good that he’s finally correcting himself, but it would be better if he actually admitted that that’s what he’s doing.