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."
"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"?