PM David Cameron this week, at a speech in Oxford commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, made the world shaking announcement that the UK was a Christian country. This astounding peroration was made in support of his claim that a return to the country’s Christian values would stop its “moral collapse.” If this were true, then bears are Catholic and the Pope shits in the woods.
Religious Ursidae and defecating pontiffs aside, this would be the kind of meat Christopher Hitchens would relish sinking his sharp teeth into, but in his place lesser moral philosophers will have to chew on it the best they can.
My two main issues with this statement are that I do not believe the UK is as much a Christian country as the Prime Minister makes out, and, even if it were, we do not get our morals from the Bible and should hold any individual who does in deep suspicion. There are lengthier dissertations on just this subject, such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and End of Faith by Sam Harris, but I’ll make a brief summary of the main points as I see them.
According the the 2001 Census, 72% of the UK population describe themselves a Christian, and 16% as having ‘no religion.’ This doesn’t give an accurate sketch of the actual religious beliefs of the country. There is an increasingly secular movement within the population, which isn’t reflected by these figures. Technically, I am a Catholic, and I’m quite sure when my father filled out the form ten years ago he would have marked me down as such. However, when old enough to decide for myself what I did and didn’t believe in, I decided I most definitely did not believe in a personal god and confidently describe myself as an atheist. ‘Atheist’ was not an option on the census a decade ago, nor was agnostic, nor secular. Yet these combined describe a large slice of the opinions of the population. We’ve all filled out forms and know that if your preferred choice is not represented you pick the closest option. The majority of people of voting age and above – i.e. those legally eligible to take part in a census – will have been at least born into if not actually brought up in one or other version of the Christian faith and so would pick that. But given the current falling church attendance figures they could not in all fairness be described as practising their religion.
According to a 2008 survey by the Office of National Statistics, only 38% of the population professed a belief in a personal god, and 45.8% considered themselves to have ‘no religion.’ Take into account that that 38% includes other faiths with large representations in the UK – Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism etc. – which it can generally be said are less secular than British Christians and combined account for at least 6% of the population in the 2001 census. In the 2010 British attitudes survey, only 43% described themselves as Christian, with just over 50% choosing the option ‘no religion.’ That’s half the population last year. This shows a distinct trend of increasing secularism. If democracy is meant to represent the majority of opinions, then the majority of opinions are that the UK is not currently a Christian country.
On the second point, that we do or should get our moral values from the Bible and the Christian religion, I would like to make David Cameron – a man confessedly a non-practising Christian – aware of some of the more morally reprehensible qualities in the Bible. According to the King James Bible it is morally acceptable to do the following: Commit genocide against non-Christians; give up your daughter and/or wife (it doesn’t matter, as, according to the Bible all women are the property of their parent or spouse) for gang rape; slay any individual caught worshipping another deity; and to persecute and execute homosexuals. Anyone who suggests the world would be a better place if we followed the values prescribed by the Bible has, I suspect, not read it.
But things are better now, a religious apologist might argue. No one pays much attention to the Old Testament any more. Are they better? The current Pope – apologies if it seems I am picking on Catholics, but I was brought up one so they receive the majority of my ire – is a man who is known to have shielded paedophile priests, and instigated the lie that condoms spread HIV/AIDS and has refused Vatican financial aid to African nations that hand out free contraceptives. Hardly a worthy example of ethical behaviour.
The most strongly religious countries at the beginning of the 21st century are undoubtedly the so-called Islamic-fundamentalist nations, such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recent legal judgements in these countries have included the handing out of death sentences – to be carried out by methods ranging from stoning to having a tractor push a wall over and crush the convicted – for such ‘crimes’ as homosexuality, blasphemy and for being the victim – yes, the victim – of rape. As good an example of why religion should be kept out of politics and the law as any.
The United States – a country more strongly Christian than probably any other – has a per capita prison population of 743 per 100,000 (0.743%) – the highest in the world. The United Kingdom, for all its ‘moral collapse’ comes in at 89th of the 216 on the ICPS (International Centre for Prison Studies) list with 155 per 100,000 (0.155%) – about a fifth as high.
To be frank, if these facts and figures are an indication of the benefits of a Christian nation, I’ll take moral collapse any day.