links for 2009-08-05


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12 responses to “links for 2009-08-05

  1. You say that “our faith is increasingly a minority one”. What figures do you have to show that that is the case? The 2001 census reports that 71.6% of the people who answered the religion question described themselves as Christians. The next biggest group, “no religion”, is a long way behind at 15.5%.

    I also notice that Ruth Gledhill says that the Christian camp, at £219 for a week, is “about half the price” of Camp Quest, at £275 for the week, according to their website. I wonder if this is representative of her reporting in general.

  2. Well LettyandDolly you raise an interesting point, but you know as well as I do that culturally identifying as a Christian is not the same thing as actually believing. There are a couple of interesting articles that back up my point on this. One from UK Polling Report analyses the last Census in depth and comes to the following conclusion

    “One can only assume that the census is picking up similar in terms of Christianity, people who don’t believe or don’t give a fig about a god, but who are clearly culturally Christian, celebrate Christmas (even Richard Dawkins reluctantly celebrates Christmas, though suspect he didn’t put Christian on his census form), give eggs at Easter, may well get married or buried in a church and so on.”

    The other, a YouGov poll for John Humphreys gives even more clarity.

    “YouGov did a poll for John Humphreys earlier this year that gave a more detailed and nuanced list of options for people to chose from, rather than a straight yes or no: only 22% of people said they believed in a personal God who hears prayers, another 6% believe in a personal God who created the world but doesn’t intervene in it. 26% of people do believe in ’something’, some sort of higher power but aren’t quite sure what. Beyond that people are largely irreligious – only 16% of people describe themselves as atheists, but between that 28% of people who believe in a personal god, 26% of people who believe in ’something’ and 16% of athiests there is a block of 30% of people who are agnostic, or who would like to believe but can’t, or most often aren’t really sure what they believe and don’t really think about it.”

    And roughly attributes about 33% of the population as being actually Christian.

    Finally I refer to a conversation with a friend of mine who described himself as Christian, but was quite clear that he didn’t believe that Jesus even existed. I rest my case.

  3. Thanks for your reply and the link. What I asked was a genuine question,
    so let me follow up with another one:

    What methodology would you use to find out what percentage of the
    population is Christian? Given that you don’t accept that just asking
    people provides a valid answer.

    I think your problems with coming up with criteria would probably be
    twofold.

    Firstly you presumably would be excluding people on the grounds of
    theological differences, like certain Quakers or Sea of Faith people who
    don’t believe in God but call themselves Christians; once you start down
    that road where will you draw the line? Are Nestorians Christians or
    not? What about Cathars or Methodists?

    Secondly, many people who are unarguably Christians are confused or
    ignorant about their beliefs. Do they count as Christians or is it like
    the driving test, where you have to pass your theory first? If it’s not
    like the theory test then isn’t that the same as just asking people,
    which is what you objected to in the census?

  4. I think that a Christian is someone who believes that Christ is the son of God and redeemer of humanity and attempt to lives their life accordingly. It would be difficult for someone to attend Church regularly and for them not to understand that, even if they don’t believe it, or are confused about much of the other theological thinking that has built up around our faith. The confused believers you talk about – which I completely acknowlege – are most likely to be confused about practice and theological problems than they are about Christ being the redeemer of humanity and attempting to live their lives accordingly. Beyond that there is a debate about what more is required of a human in relation to God of course. However, everything else should fall out of that belief.

    The metaphysical question of whether someone is or isn’t a Christian is ultimately up to God not me to define as I can’t know the human heart. But I think my assertion in the first line is as clear and simple as you can make it without introducing any other doctrinal confusions. And actually that is not the question that was asked in the census. An assumption was made that people know what it means to be a Christian – I don’t think people do know anymore.

    I think the link really does express the point I am trying to make – saying you are Christian in the context of a census but not believing in God, Christ, attending church or allowing it to impact your life in anyway beyond a tick box on a census form is nothing more than culturally identifying as a Christian, and this blog and my post were about serious and life impacting belief coupled with personal experience of God.

    The criteria used to argue that we aren’t a minority are the more prominent numerical criteria that exist but they asked the wrong question for a genuine spiritual survey – because they weren’t part of a spiritual assessment they were about a secular concern with tolerance and identity. If it had been a survey with a genuine desire to establish the gamut of faith then you would have had an answer with more nuance along the lines of the one delivered by YouGov. That’s why I pointed you at it and that’s why I still point you at it. The link interrogates that nuance and illustrates that a figure more along the lines of 30% of people actually actively acknowledging Christ and acting on it is a more reasonable assessment. Which makes us a minority.

    I should be clear that I believe that secularism and humanism constitute the spiritual reality of the UK today and that my comments were also made in that context. I don’t think I was clear enough about that.

    But I am enjoying the debate!
    PS most though not all Quakers do acknowlege Jesus in the way I have described.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to write a lengthy reply.

    I went to church in my teens and I never had any sense that there was a minimum requirement of the kind you propose. We must have gone to very different churches. My memory is that many people there, while not confused, simply didn’t worry about it. That is consonant with my definition of a Christian: that it, like any other religious affiliation, is performative and not at all a matter of intellectual assent to particular propositions. So the census question, in my interpretation, is correct. Saying
    “I am a Christian’ makes you one.

    If you’d asked me when I was seven, I would have said I was a Christian. I believed that Jesus was the son of God in exactly the same way that I was the son of my father; I wouldn’t have known what “redeemer of mankind” meant. Was I not a Christian? When did I become one?

    I think your definition probably is as simple as you could make it, but it’s telling that it is still problematic. The meaning of “son of God” has been debated throughout the history of Christianity, and “redeemer of mankind” isn’t much better. Origen, for example, believed that eventually everyone, including Satan, would be redeemed by Christ. Augustine thought that Christ was the redeemer only of that part of mankind that is baptised into the Catholic Church.

    I’d like to take issue, as well, with the way you seem to treat
    secularists and humanists as virtually synonymous. But you can be a religious secularist. My father, a vicar, believes in disestestablishing the Church and abolishing faith schools. He is, therefore, a secularist and a Christian. Well, he would say he is a Christian but he might well fail your test.

  6. Effectively that “minimum requirement” is the baptism service – it’s what your godparents say on your behalf and what you say when you are confirmed or when you receive adult baptism or make your public confession if you are of a more evangelical church community. So it does exist, though as a child you might not have been aware of that. Children’s understanding expands as they grow older, that’s part of maturing and that’s why many people have a crisis of faith in their teens as they come to realise that belief is not as straightforward as their childish ideas of God and that is why a public declaration of faith is something that Protestants believe should be done once one is a consenting adult, aware of the choice they are making.

    Jesus said that simply saying something didn’t make it so,
    “21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
    22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?”
    23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
    Mathew 7 21 – 23

    This is quite a hard thing to hear, particularly if you combine it with the parable of the sheep and the goats in which people who almost state that they never did anything for God turn out to have been doing his will.

    All I can do is refer you again to the YouGov survey, the census asked a question in an inappropriate context, the YouGov survey asked a more nuanced question and therefore got far closer to the reality of the situation.

    To address your point about secularists and humanists. Though it is possible to be a Christian who believes in ideas that are synonymous with secularism such as the ones you mention – which I would also subscribe to – there is also the dimension of secularism that states that religion is an illegimate superstition the impedes human progress. Barry Kosim of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture explains it as follows:-
    “the hard secularist considers religious propositions to be epistemologically illegitimate, warranted by neither reason nor experience.” However, in the view of soft secularism, “the attainment of absolute truth was impossible and therefore skepticism and tolerance should be the principle and overriding values in the discussion of science and religion.” (I got that from Wikipedia if you want to check it out).

    I think I also ought to point out that I didn’t say that anyone who describes themself as a secularist or a humanist is not a Christian. Check back to my response – what I said was that I thought that they constituted the spiritual reality of our country at the moment. Those are 2 completely different things.

    I now have a question to ask you – why is it so important to you that the UK is a Christian society and that Christians are not in the minority as I would assert but in fact in the majority as you would assert?

  7. This is the problem with attempting any definition. You’ve now added two more elements to your definition: that is doesn’t apply to children, and Baptism. The more I read about the history of Christianity the more I think that there is nothing that all these different Christians have in common except that they call themselves Christians. Take your mention of Baptism: around the time of Constantine Baptism was not part of becoming a Christian. If you became a catechumen you became and called yourself a Christian, but Baptism was commonly delayed until the last rites, as happened with Constantine himself (because it was believed that mortal sins committed after Baptism could not be forgiven).

    Quakers, I believe, reject Baptism – your minimum requirement – altogether. Are you saying that they’re not Christians?

    Jesus is talking about salvation here, not who is a Christian. In the same gospel we find him backing up my belief that religion is something you do and not a question of endorsing a creed:
    “Whoever does them and teaches them [the Law and the Prophets] will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” 5.19.
    “If you wish to enter into life keep the commandments.” 19.17.

    This is our fundamental disagreement. I don’t accept that the YouGov poll has any bearing on whether the people interviewed are Christians, because I don’t connect having any particular belief with being a Christian. And I think this has always been the case. There is some fascinating detail on this in Religion and the Decline of Magic, where Thomas says, for example: “Medieval religion had laid its emphasis upon the regular performance of ritual duties, rather than on the memorizing of theological belief” (Chapter 6). In the same chapter he quotes some amazing figures gathered by the Bishop of Gloucester in 1551. Of 311 clergy in the diocese 171 didn’t know the 10 Commandments; 27 didn’t know the author of the Lord’s Prayer, and 10 could not repeat it. If that was the clergy we can imagine what the ignorance of the laity must have been.

    Fair enough if you understand secularism differently from me. I use it to mean, essentially, the separation of church and state. But I am genuinely surprised if you think that humanism and secularism, in your hostile sense, are in the majority. The UK Polling Report that you linked to mentions five surveys about whether people believe in God, and the answer was yes in 71%, 62%, 60%, 44% and 70% of cases (most of the links to the surveys themselves seem to be broken). Even if we disagree about the Christianity question, that surely suggests that humanism is in the minority. If you mean that those things are the spiritual reality because humanists and secularists disproportionately create the spiritual reality, then I can’t argue with that subjective impression. But I would ask you to go into a high street bookshop and compare the size of the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ section with the ‘Humanism and Secularism’ section.

    It’s not important to me that the figure should be that particular figure, but given that that’s what it is I think we’re obliged to be accurate about it. If you said on your blog that 500 people a year were killed on the roads in the UK, I would leave a comment saying, “actually it’s about 3000”, without it being important to me that more people should be dying on the roads.

    Beyond that I do think it’s a discussion worth having: what does it mean to belong to a religion? (And I greatly appreciate your taking the time to engage in that discussion). I think this is where some of the so-called New Atheists go wrong: they think that religion is about intellectual adherence to a set of ideas which they consider silly; but I would say religion is, for most people, much more a question of practice and ritual. The problem is that religion has always been written about by that small section of people for whom it is primarily a matter of ideas.

    Finally I think historical perspective is always important. You say that “our faith is increasingly a minority one”. That has always been the view of some people. To quote Thomas again “in the seventeenth century the godly came to see themselves as a tiny minority in an unregenerate world”. That is a view which I think is dangerous. What do you think?

  8. Hi LettyandDolly, you make things very difficult when you twist what I have written because I have to keep referring you back to what I actually wrote:-
    – I didn’t say it doens’t apply to children, I said that parents and godparents make the “formal assent” for you because you said that there was no formal assent at all
    – I didn’t say that Baptism was a minimum requirement for being a Christian I said that the Baptism ceremony was where that assent took place

    Don’t tell me you wouldn’t take to task a faith that required people to make public declarations before they were of an age to be capable of really understanding what they were saying. I wouldn’t support that and I don’t think you would either.

    Your comments about the changing nature of baptism are of interest but don’t materially affect this discussion or the idea that to be a Christian you have to assent (as I have said before) to the belief that Jesus is the Son of God and redeemer of humanity and attempts to live their life accordingly. You are just talking about Baptism.

    Your comment about Jesus is correct but he also says –

    ” I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26

    ie he says what I said in my statement – belief and action are the key. It is not enough to do one or the other, it’s the 2 hand in hand that make for a Christian.

    “Medieval religion had laid its emphasis upon the regular performance of ritual duties, rather than on the memorizing of theological belief” (Chapter 6). Yes – laid it’s emphasis, but didn’t say “and the belief system on which this is based was irrelevant.” After all, people are driven by motivations for their actions, whether that motivation is love of God, love of self or love of others (or any combination of those 3). CHristianity has taken different emphases on the balance between faith and action through the ages, but that emphasis on one does not cancel the other it just puts it in a different place and if you are Christian you would believe that we as a Church are moved by the needs and spirit of the time towards the different emphasis in order to help God with what he wants for his creation. How much people actually knew of the book learning is variable as you and TCE point out (I like the fact that you referenced our erstwhile leader btw!) that doesn’t mean that these people would not have assented to the bald statement I outline as being at the heart of what it is to be a CHristian.

    I think you have pinpointed what I mean when I say that the prevailing cultures are humanist and secular. It has certainly been my experience of life so far – in terms of my friends, my work colleagues, my acquaintances and my family over the last 37 years. And that is why a camp where young people can be with others who actually and actively believe what they believe is a good thing. It can be very lonely for some of us when we leave the doors of the Church/house group/pilgrimage and move out into the world understanding that there may be occasions when we are likely to be the only Christian that some people have ever had the chance to see “in action”, failing every day to communicate why we believe what we believe and the peace and the fullness of life which it brings. Though you might find it strange I would argue that much of the content of hte Mind Body Spirit section in the bookshop springs from the humanist focus on what I would describe as “ultimate humanity” ie the idea that self and self-fulfillment are paramount. And also from a spiritual hunger that people can’t blot out that is not served by the prevailing culture (and of course not being answered by the church mea culpa and let’s save that for a discussion over a pint please!)

    Religious writers have also addressed action and activity as expressions of faith – the current emphasis on green issues and trade justice in writing and Church culture is evidence of that.

    Finally to your point about historical perspective – has it not crossed your mind that maybe we are in the minority? And have always been? People have always played lip service to religion – all religions – because they are a way of fitting in, of getting power, of influencing people. I have never been worried by the dwindling Church congregations of the last 80 years for that reason. (You can’t argue with Church attendance statistics that clearly demonstrate a dwindling prevalence of Christianity, whatever else you might not agree with in my assertion.) I saw that those who felt no real belief would leave the congregation (along with some who do feel a faith but have been let down by their experience of Church I would say) and that is how it should be. As with all things it becomes a dangerous view depending on the actions it elicits. We know from the writings that the early Christians felt this way but all they got for their dangerous view was persecution and death.

    So it comes down, as it always does in our discussions, to two viewpoints which can’t be reconciled. I say that the YouGov figures represent reality you say they don’t.

  9. Pingback: Summer of music 2 « Spirituality of Play·

  10. I’d like to go for a pint (or a vegetarian thali) and a theological
    discussion with you, but I’m bemused by your accusation that I’m twisting your words. You said in comment 6: “Effectively that “minimum requirement” is the baptism service”, and then in comment 8 you say: “I didn’t say that Baptism was a minimum requirement for being a Christian”. You also said that parents and godparents make an assent on a child’s behalf, and I inferred that you meant that your earlier definition of a Christian didn’t include children and that you were now expanding it. I may have misunderstood you, but to say that I’m twisting your words is unjust.

    Do you believe that children can be Christians? My question was whether I, at age seven, was a Christian, and I thought you had answered in the affirmative.

    I’d like to ask you about your two minimum beliefs, because I’m not sure what they mean. I’ve asked various Christians about these two and they’ve given me different answers. So what does it mean to say that Jesus is the son of God? And what does it mean to say that he is the redeemer of humanity?

    You read the Matthew and John passages as supplementing each other; I read them as contradictory. The Matthew passage appears, in slightly different form, in Luke. After Christ says the man should keep the commandments, and the man says he’s done that and is there anything else, Christ says: “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” What does following him mean? He elaborates to the disciples: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come in eternal life.” (Luke 18.22, 29-30, NRSV) So if we take your supplementing method of adding up Christ’s statements about eternal life, he says you have to:
    1. Keep the commandments.
    2. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.
    3. Leave home and your immediate family.

    Modern Christians don’t commonly follow these recommended courses of action. Although note that someone like St Jerome took them very seriously and literally. It therefore appears that Christian practice, what you describe as “attempting to live their lives accordingly”, is necessarily eclectic.

    It has occurred to me that some Christians think, and have always thought, that they’re in the minority. I said as much in my previous comment. We do fundamentally disagree about this – although I am genuinely interested in what you think, not in just contradicting you. But don’t forget that it’s not just me, a random commenter, that you’re disagreeing with, but also the Office for National Statistics: “Christianity is the main religion in Great Britain. There were 41 million Christians in 2001, making up almost three quarters of the population (72 per cent)”
    (link).

    I hope Greenbelt was good. Why is it called Greenbelt, by the way?

  11. I think the point was it was you who said that I said that Baptism was the minimum requirement. I didn’t say that I said that the declarations that are my definition of what makes a Christian are made for children at Baptism or by themselves for adults undergoing adult baptism. But Baptism itself is not a minimum requirement. That’s a very important point.

    I brought that point about a declaration up because you said
    “I went to church in my teens and I never had any sense that there was a minimum requirement of the kind you propose” effectively I was saying Yes, there was a statement and that was made for you as a child or you were encouraged to make a public statement as an adult. However, public statements are not required in my definition.

    Can children be Christians – Yes.

    What does it mean to say that Jesus was the Son of God is a question that the best theologians have grappled with for 2000 years – I’m certainly not going to be able to give you a better definition than them so I will direct you to some good resources to look at:-
    What does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God – accessible version
    What does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God – more theological version
    What does it mean that Jesus is the Redeemer of Humanity?

    As reqards your quotations I am sure that you will know that Jesus uses hyperbole to make his points. While he says to the young man who is obsessed with his wealth effectively “leave everything” you don’t see him saying the same thing to Martha and Mary for example, he attends their homes and eats with them in them. He is making a point here to the young man to reveal to him the distance between where he thinks he is spiritually and where his heart really is. And as for his family – if he truly rejected his immediate family why is his mother at the foot of his cross at his death and with the disciples after the resurrection? Again, he is using hyperbole to make the point that you should not put your family above your relationship with God.

    I think you make a good point however about those Christians who do give up everything and the nature of following Christ as being eclectic. I agree and it’s one of the most beautiful and important points about Christianity that we are absolutely loved as we are. We are accepted where we are in our relationship with God – there is not an absolute standard of behaviour that will guarantee you salveation, because no one could ever earn salvation for themselves by their actions. If they could they would be God.

    Again – as I say, it’s the context of the question that gives the results. And in my opinion the context will not give an accurate representation of the real faith situation. I think we should agree to differ and leave that one!

    Greenbelt was lovely. Very uplifting. Great music and inspiring speakers. And I have no idea at all why it is called Greenbelt. Sorry!

  12. Then why did you mention baptism in the context of a discussion about the minimum requirements for being a Christian?

    I agree that Jesus sometimes uses hyperbole. But not, I think in this case: not least because both things are consistent with what he says elsewhere, eg Matt. 6.19 and Mark 3.31. Your question about Mary and Martha is perhaps rhetorical but I’ll answer it anyway. (It assumes that the gospels are both consistent and historically accurate, which I reject, but let’s leave that aside). Nearly all New Testament scholars agree that the earliest sayings of Jesus were preserved in oral tradition as pericopes. These were then put into narrative form and given context by the gospel writers or writers of earlier versions such as Q. Over the centuries there were additions and variations, as is clear from the rich manuscript tradition of the New Testament. The upshot of this is that the individual saying are far more likely to be genuine than the contexts they are put in, such as trips to people’s houses. Of course when it comes to deciding which are the genuine sayings scholars disagree here vehemently, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to know.

    When you first mentioned your two criteria, in comment 4, you were telling me how simple and unambiguous they are: “It would be difficult for someone to attend Church regularly and for them not to understand that, even if they…are confused about much of the other theological thinking that has built up around our faith.” This definition, you said, was “as clear and simple as you can make it”. But you now appear to be in the position that a Christian must give intellectual assent to “a question that the best theologians have grappled with for 2000 years”. The confused believers “are most likely to be confused about practice and theological problems than they are about Christ being the redeemer of humanity” and yet you don’t feel able to tell me what that means and refer me elsewhere. You even imply that children can understand and give intellectual assent to something that the best theologians have grappled with for two thousand years.

    I’m going on about this because, as I’ve said all along, I don’t think it’s possible to construct a workable definition of what a Christian has to believe to be a Christian. I think you should extend your more generous attitude towards behaviour: “We are accepted where we are in our relationship with God” to belief as well, and give up the idea of an entrance exam to Christian fellowship.

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