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Methinks the believers complain too much

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

John Humphrys has commissioned a poll from Yougov to help him sell his new book, In God We Doubt. It shows that 16% of the 2,200 people who responded defined themselves as atheists, 9% agnostics, 28% said they believed in God and 26% said they believed in some undefined “something”.

That comes to a total of 79%. The article reporting the poll didn’t say where the other 21% stood on the belief/non-belief spectrum.

42% thought religion harmful, a statistic which Humphrys explains away with a remark so obvious one wonders why he bothered to make it: “One reason might be the publicity attracted by a handful of mad mullahs and their hate-filled rhetoric.”

He writes: “Even though the dominant faith — by a massive margin — is Christianity, only 17% thought the influence of religion was beneficial. That is even fewer than those who claim that they believe in a personal God. And yet when we asked which of the main religions was ‘most effective’ in getting its message across, most thought it was Christianity. Only 10% cited Islam compared with 32% who said Christianity.” In the survey 10% prayed every night, 43% said they never prayed, and 31% hardly prayed. “More than half of those who say they believe in a personal God cannot be bothered to pray to him every night,” was Humphrys' reaction.

Of course, like all polls, the results would have been dictated by the framing of the questions. And like most polls, you can read into this just about anything you like. Humphrys takes comfort from the fact that Christianity is cited as the “most effective at getting its message across”, whereas we are happy that there are almost as many self-defined atheists and agnostics as there are God-believers.

We take even more comfort from the fact that it is a well-known phenomenon that when answering pollsters’ questions about religion, people exaggerate, make all kinds of claims that are untrue about how many times they go to church and even claim they are believers when – under closer questioning – they reveal that they aren’t (by any objective definition, anyway).

Perhaps the most notorious example of this effect was in the 2001 census, when 72% of people in England and Wales claimed to be Christian. Every other survey since has shown something like 35% of the population are prepared to say they don’t believe, and something like 20–25% saying that they don’t know whether they believe or not (and don’t care either way).

And yet still we are fed this idea that religion is important just because among the diminishing numbers of believers are a lot of people in politics and the media.

And when spokespeople for the 35% who don’t believe begin to emerge – people like Richard Dawkins, Peter Hitchens, AC Grayling and others – they are denounced from the pulpits and the newspaper columns as “fanatics” and “extremists”. There is a positive library of newspaper articles accumulating expressing this opinion.

Just this week we’ve seen another crop of them. John Humphrys himself, a whingeing, praying “agnostic” who, for some reason, longs for the illusory comforts of religion, had a go in the Sunday Times

Humphrys crassly imagines that because some people don’t believe — and are prepared to say so — it’s the equivalent of attacking and trying to destroy the very essence of those who do. According to the Sunday Times interview, by the notoriously superstition-driven journo Bryan Appleyard, Humphrys says that he read the books of the new wave of “atheist writers” and became angry: “Perhaps it was a mistake to read one after the other, to gorge myself, but it was the unfairness of it all. I thought they’d no right to do that … I was surprised how offended I was by their attack on people who believe, but it was personal.” He felt it was ‘grotesque for clever people like Dawkins’ to present themselves as some kind of martyrs for the atheist cause.

“Nobody is denying them their atheism and nobody has done for a very long time in this country. I doubt whether any of Dawkins’s immediate relatives have been burnt at the stake. Hitchens presents religion as not just wrongheaded but as something so dangerous it must be eradicated. And then they say even these people who profess to be believers actually know it’s not true. How dare they? That’s unacceptable. I think it’s dishonest.”

Not half as dishonest as the way Humphrys (or more likely Appleyard) is portraying it.

Then came Ron Ferguson, a columnist on The Herald in Glasgow. He has written the same article several times over the past few weeks.

Next up is Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent
(Some responses here.

And after that Magnus Linklater — yet another yearning-for-God atheist — in the Times

And then there’s Mr I’m-so-reasonable-that-everyone-looks-like-a-loony-beside-me Theo Hobson on the Ekklesia site

There are strong hints of insecurity in all these articles. Intelligent people trying to make the case for idiotic belief systems become themselves idiotic. I think they know this, and that is why they have become so extremely defensive. If they truly, in their heart of hearts, believed all the hooey they claim to believe, they would brush off detractors without a second thought. As it is, they realise that their cover has been blown. They have to face up to the fact that the religious emperor has no clothes.

What started out as a campaign by fundamentalist Christians to make the word “atheist” into a term of abuse, which could not be uttered without the addition of an adjective such as “extremist” or “fundamentalist”, has now been taken up big time by the establishment intelligentsia who have never been able to shake off their childhood indoctrination. It’s clear they feel guilty when they even try.