Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Yes, indeed, if by "widespread" you mean "rather narrow"

Via the excellent blogs of Dr. Goldacre and The Heresiarch , I read about a new poll by the Rowntree foundation of blessed memory : apparently, religion has become the "new social evil [sic]". How very exciting.

The Times reported the matter (article here) which makes the claims that there was a "widespread belief that faith - not just in its extreme form - was intolerant, irrational and used to justify persecution."

and that

"The researchers found that the "dominant opinion" was that religion was a "social evil"."

Actually, the poll shows nothing of the sort. You can read the study website here, the executive summary here, the complete results here and the "Voices of unheard groups" section here. [The latter is an attempt to compensate for the vast over-representation of white, middle class respondents to the Internet survey, by creating focus groups (with people with LDs, ex-offenders and others). This is discussed in the methodology section.]

The main survey first: there were ~3,500 respondents, with views falling into twelve broad categories, the first 6 described as "dominant", the remainder described as "not dominant but important" . "Religion" comes in at 9, less important than gender equality but more important than immigration (!). However, as is clear from both the summary and the discussion on the main report (pages 30-31), this actually covers both "religion" and "the decline of religion".

Although the "decline of religion" is the smaller category, the "religion" category covers four areas: "erosion of secularism", "the most divisive agent in our society", "undermining rationalism", and "religious extremism". As the quoted responses show, only the middle two categories exemplify the "religion poisons everything" attitude which the Times article implies is so prevalent. I simply don't think the data justify the statements that "widespread belief that faith - not just in its extreme form - was intolerant, irrational and used to justify persecution.", "Britain has had it with religion", or even that ' "dominant opinion" was that religion was a "social evil".' I also think the Times article would be of more practical value if the word "many" were quantified. Anywhere. The "unheard groups" section told a rather different story*: criticisms of religion were not directed at religious faith, but at "the ways in which religion was organised and practices were felt to be problematic". Unfortunately, this fascinating statement was not quantified nor supported with quotes, so we cannot know which aspects of organisation and practice were so problematic. "Religious extremism" [page 19] predictably comes in for criticism **, but more surprisingly so does "an absence of religious guidance in relation to the challenges of contemporary society". Further, "it was felt that religious leaders across faiths should provide some moral leadership, but that this wasn't happening". In both the studies, it's worth noting that government, the media, and big business come in for criticism as well as religion, but the Times chooses not to mention them. Britons are rather less sceptical about the Great Sky Fairy who Intelligently Designed the World than they are about the Great Socialist Fairy who Intelligently Designed the Economy.

And finally, what article about religion would be complete without a quote from Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, who was:
"...extremely pleased.Britain has had it with religion"

I don't understand why someone in favour of a secular society would try alienate people like me, who are religious and support a secular society - but then again, we theists are notoriously stupid.


* It is also desperately sad: I defy anyone to read the whole "Voices of unheard groups" report and not be moved. ** Voices Of Unheard Groups, page 19. Hands up anyone who is in favour of "religious extremism"?


LemmusLemmus said...

"people like me, who are religious and support a secular society"

This seems to be a contradiction. Or do by "secular society" you only mean separation of church and state? (Is that a proper English sentence?)

Political Scientist said...

Hello LemmusLemmus,

I wish I spoke German as well as you speak English - I'm always humbled when I read blogs written in a bloggers second language
"Or do..and state?" is fine as an English sentence.

I'm using "secular society" in the sense of a society which is non-confessional: broadly speaking, there is a separation between church and state.

PS: Thanks for adding me to your blogroll!

LemmusLemmus said...


no need to thank; it's a class blog. Given the size of my readership, don't expect too much additional traffic.

As for the language thing, I'm blushing - but not too much. English is probably the easiest western language to learn. For example, I believe that in German there are 13 regular ways of forming the plural - plus irregulars. There are also three genders, of course.

Before any reader assumes we're going to exchange French kisses next, shouldn't it have been "blogger's"?


Political Scientist said...

'shouldn't it have been "blogger's"?'
Yes, it should have been - damned apostrophes :)

I think English probably has weirder spelling than pretty much any other language. I like to quote Winnie the Pooh: "I have good spelling, but it wobbles, and all the letters get in the wrong places".
I think a lot of common verbs in English are irregular.

I am politely horrified that a language can require 13 different ways to form the plural.

Japanese doesn't have singular or plural (although sometimes you have to use honorific forms of words to make polite speech, which isn't as straightforward as it sounds), and eliminates pronouns as far as is practicable; however, it has a grammatical construction known as the "passive causative". Suffice to say, I have had lessons on this, I have read textbooks, and I have read websites, and I simply cannot get my head around it. Basically, it's a way of expressing the idea of "was allowed/compelled to...", and it messes with my head.

LemmusLemmus said...

We're going completely offtopic here, but why not?

English spelling is pretty weird indeed. In this respect, German is pretty easy. But I remember learning some French (most of it forgotten by now) and never worrying about spelling as much as I worried about grammar. (Note that French spelling doesn't make too much sense either, especially as we're approaching the end of the word.)

The easy thing about English is that it has hardly any grammar. Compare, for example:


Ich fahre
Du fährst
Er fährt

Wir fahren
Ihr fahrt
Sie fahren


I drive
You drive
He drives

We drive
You drive
They drive

As for irregular verbs, I would guess that in any language the more common a verb is, the more likely it is to be irregular. In fact, I remember reading about a linguistic study which showed that the more common a verb was, the less likely it was to go from irregular to regular (which is the general trend).

Having said that, irregular verbs are one of the big grammar challenges for people learning English (the other being prepositions). I still remember sitting on my arse for hours on end and learning them. Our teacher had a pretty nasty way of testing us. It wasn't as though we were given a list of verbs and had to fill in the other two forms; she gave everybody a list of letters and then you had to list all the forms of all the irregular verbs starting with those letters you could think of. "Remember", she said, "that there are words starting with 'k' that don't sound like they start with 'k', such as 'knife'". Upon which someone submitted "knife, knofe, knifen".