Dawkins claims poll shows religion is largely irrelevant in Britain


FOR SOME, scientist and author Richard Dawkins is the high priest of atheism. For others, he is a deeply annoying fundamentalist – just as fundamentalist about his lack of belief in a higher being as some of those who do profess faith.

Dawkins was highly visible yesterday following the publication of a poll by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science that argued Britain was now a post-Christian society, but one still governed by Christian rules.

More than 2,000 people were polled for Dawkins’ centre by respected pollster Ipsos Mori during census week last April.

Just 54 per cent identified themselves as Christians, compared to 72 per cent in 2001.

Almost three-quarters of those who described themselves as Christian did so because they were born into a faith, rather than because of their beliefs. Just a third (32 per cent) of these believe Jesus was physically resurrected. One in five do not believe in the resurrection, even in a spiritual sense.

Just under half, 49 per cent, do not think of Jesus as the son of God, while one in 25 of those who declare themselves Christian do not believe he existed at all.

The findings, Dawkins argued, supported his contention that all signs of religion in British public life should be removed, along with the influence of the Christian churches over social legislation, including gay marriage and assisted suicide.

“Despite the best efforts of church leaders and politicians to convince us that religion is still an important part of our national life, these results demonstrate that it is largely irrelevant, even to those who still label themselves Christian,” he said.

“When it comes to belief, practice or even the most elementary knowledge of the Bible, it is clear that faith is a spent force in the UK, and it is time our policy-makers woke up to that reality and stopped trying to impose beliefs on society that society itself has largely rejected.”

The Dawkins poll, coincidentally, came just as the largest number of senior British ministers, including Northern Ireland secretary of state Owen Paterson, entered the Vatican for talks with Pope Benedict XVI.

In a speech to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Conservative Party chairwoman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – a Muslim – said the forces of intolerant secularisation had to be held back and that “the religious foundations on which our societies are built” should be affirmed.

The place of Christianity and, indeed, religion of all sorts has been the subject of recent debate following a British high court decision to ban Devon town councillors from opening their monthly meeting with a Christian prayer.

The Devon legal action marked the “gradual marginalisation” of the Christian faith, said former archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey, who said the National Secular Society was trying to “get rid of Christianity as a public faith”.

Even some of Dawkins’ fellow atheists, however, chortled when he ran into difficulties during exchanges with Rev Giles Fraser on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The scientist had made much of the failure of two-thirds of those who said they were Christians to identify the Gospel of Matthew as the first book of the New Testament. The line was so good he used it twice.

However, Rev Fraser pounced, asking him to give the full title of On the Origin of Species,Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking work and the tome considered to be the Bible of evolutionary biology.

“Yes, I could,” declared Dawkins.

“Go on then,” said Rev Fraser, leaving the scientist to mumble: “ On the Origin of Species, er, with . . . oh God . . . On the Origin of Species, um . . . here is a subtitle . . . er, um, With Respect to the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The correct full title for Darwin’s 1859 work, which was regarded as heresy by believers at the time, is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Triumphant, Rev Fraser replied: “You are the high pope of Darwinism. If you asked people who believe in evolution that question and only 2 per cent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to say they don’t really believe it after all.”