Flawed Theos survey claims Catholic values are common in the UK

A new Theos survey about the Pope’s visit is doing the rounds today, and statistics are flying in all directions. The BHA are pointing out that a large majority of Britons are uninterested in (not hostile to) the Pope’s visit, which seems a fair conclusion. Theos says the public generally agreed with the poll’s 12 Catholic statements of values, and ask whether this means Britain is much more Catholic than we think. This, to put it politely, is dubious.

The value statements are almost all nothing to do with Catholicism. Some are ambiguous platitudes, but where it’s specific there’s nothing every major religion, plus countless moral philosophers, haven’t produced independently. And worst of all, anything that would make the list uniquely Catholic is conveniently omitted – there’s nothing about contraception, abortion, treatment of women, or treatment of gay people. The statements are instead mostly shared human values that fall out of thinking and caring about the world around you, and it’s massively dishonest to posit that widespread agreement means ‘the public rather likes the Pope’s social teaching’. It’s transparent cherry-picking, and Theos should know better.

The statements were taken from the Catholic Church’s Caritas in Veritate, an open letter from the Pope to the world. Here’s the full list of statements the poll asked people about:

Moral evaluation and scientific research must go hand in hand

Yes. Kinda. Depending on what you mean. But I think most scientists would broadly agree with this statement, and most scientists aren’t Catholic.

An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties

I think this is too vague for people to give an informed opinion. I don’t know what it means – what ‘duties’? I can come up with specific interpretations where I agree, but I suspect the Church’s version of duty is somewhat different from mine. The CiV has some worthy statements about rights and duties (para. 43), but it’s also lacking specifics.

It is irresponsible to view sexuality merely as a source of pleasure

Yes, I agree with the raw words in your sentence, but we all know what you’re getting at – stop being oblique and just say it. Para. 44 of the CiV goes into more detail, assuming its own ideas on birth control as inherently correct, and saying that ‘viewing sexuality merely as a source of pleasure’ means ‘individuals are ultimately subjected to various forms of violence’. So it all gets a bit weird.

Update: Cristina Odone thinks this is obviously a statement of Catholic doctrine, and the high agreement percentages mean people agree with the Catholic approach. I doubt that. The poll almost certainly didn’t identify the statement as a Catholic declaration – it would surely have defeated the point to have done so – and there’s no reason people would jump to thinking about contraception without the Catholic link.

The natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure

Yep. I think most people can agree with this, unless you’re an oil executive.

Investment always has moral, as well as economic significance

Yep. People have been saying this for as long as investment has been around, haven’t they?

The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly

This is a circular argument both here and in the CiV – ‘correctly’ seems to mean ‘ethically’ – but ditch the last five words and it stands. I refer you to the last 300 years of British economic history.

Technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption

Yes. Scientists have been saying this for decades. This is a bit odd, actually – it’s not like the Catholic Church figured this out first – they’ve looked at the scientific evidence over the past few decades and rightly concluded that something needs to be done. Which is good. But it’s as much a Catholic value as ‘don’t smoke’.

We must prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone

Badly phrased – prioritise, how? – but the Caritas in Veritate is clear that it means steady employment is a good thing. Do many economists disagree with that?

Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God’s love

This is the only statement where the vast majority of people disagreed (agreement was in single figures). Probably because it’s creepy, and transparently controlling. I suggest any Catholics who genuinely (in their heart of hearts) think this is true go read something about economics. Unless you’re using some weird question-begging definition of ‘poverty’, which is entirely possible.

The consumer has a specific social responsibility

Vague, but again the obvious meaning is the one in the CiV. And, again, every religion and non-religious moral-philosopher regularly says the same thing. Not to mention lobby groups, humanitarian organisations, newspaper commentators, NGOs, pop stars etc..

One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation

In the CiV (para 53) this is intrinsically linked to poverty being a rejection of god’s love, and it all gets a bit tricksy, though there’s plenty to agree with. I tend to think isolation isn’t nice, but not being able to afford food or water is a lot worse. Plus, some people just like being alone. So I wouldn’t know how to respond to this in a poll.

Food and access to water are universal rights of all human beings

Who disagrees with this?

Agreeing with much of the above no more makes you Catholic than agreeing that cats are strange makes you catbinlady.

I’m sure these values do fall out of Catholic ideology, but the ideas that make said ideology unique are missing in action. Most humanists agree with much of the above, but you couldn’t suddenly claim most of the public agree with humanist ideas (you’d need a completely different kind of question to tease apart humanists. Which, incidentally, has been done. (though it’s a bit contentious)).

The statistic I’d be concerned about is the reaction to ‘I don’t approve of the Pope’s visit to Britain’: 24% of people agree. That’s a bit sad. I don’t like the Pope’s views on many things, but he gets to come here, and we get to protest. It’s actually a pretty good state of affairs, with the only major source of contention – in terms of the Pope’s visit in particular, rather than his views – being the state-sponsored nature of the trip.

Both sides have actually been very civil. The only problem, as ever, is the shouty elements making a nuisance of themselves. The debate on Wednesday had some problems with loud, annoying secularists shouting the Catholic speakers down. This wasn’t impressive. That said, I saw exactly the same from Catholics at Protest the Pope gigs earlier in the year, by which I don’t mean some vacuous ‘we’re as bad as each other’, just that I think both sides would agree the loud fringes don’t help anybody, and simply allow the media to paint a picture of us all as a bunch of loonies. Which is my biggest worry about the whole enterprise.

This Theos survery doesn’t help counter that narrative. If you’re going to argue the stats, you have to make an honest effort.

Caution over Cherie Blair’s religious ruling

Cherie Blair/Booth apparently gave someone a lenient sentence because they were religious:

I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.

Admittedly, “based on the fact that” seems damning. But I think it’s worth waiting for the full transcripts to become available, as this has the feel of something that could be explained. Maybe there were unreported circumstances, or maybe this is the kind of thing judges say to get through to supposedly religious people. While it’s possible she crossed a line, I’m skeptical it’s this clear-cut.

The National Secular Society have made an official complaint, so hopefully they have all the facts of the case.  But they do, um, take a hard line sometimes, and I’d like to see more evidence before jumping the gun.

Befrocked brats in the news

The Pope’s rubbish, isn’t he? He thinks there’s a ‘natural law’ against gay people. The Archbishop of Westminster agrees, which was news despite that being his job. Mind you, Muttley mostly went on and on about Dastardly’s right to speak out, which – from the reactions I saw – was an argument he was having entirely with himself. But while their bigoted drivel was widely reported, the dynamics of the criticism meant the media were surprisingly hostile – he was criticising ‘our’ equality laws, so it became a nationalistic thing. Outside of the usual circles it was only a few lefties who decided they agreed, which was a bit bloody weird: they seemed to fall for the ‘why would you want to work for homophobes anyway’ trick.

It’s really quite easy: there are human rights, and that’s it. No ‘natural law’. No ‘natural justice’. No religious rights. You get the human right to hold whatever beliefs you like. You get the human right to be treated according to your ideas, where they are relevant, and not your biology. There are more. The equality bill puts these transparently correct ideas into law. It’s not difficult, yet the Pope still struggles.

He’s coming to the UK later this year. I say we do our best to annoy him so he doesn’t bother visiting at all, but, failing that, protest him when he arrives. Protesting is a tricky business, as you don’t want to seem anti-religion and generally unpleasant, but I think it needs to be done. You can’t let people claim condoms aggravate the spread of aids, or that equality laws don’t apply to religious people. When people say things like that, there’s a duty to point out that they’re a dick.

And the only acceptable reason not to move with the times is…

If you need to file a VAT return, you’ll soon be required to submit it electronically. Well, I say ‘required’ – there are two ways you can avoid it. Currently, if you turnover £100k+ you don’t have to file online if you’re subject to an insolvency procedure. Or if:

HMRC is satisfied that your business is run entirely by individuals who have a religious conscience objection to using computers

Sure – maybe you’re an Amish-ish businesspeople who doesn’t do electronics. But there’s no paper submission if you simply don’t want to use computers. So HMRC distinguishes between “I think” and “I believe”. I am forced to conclude the latter is a spell.

(via WA)

Unwavering conviction

Says the Bishop to the armed forces:

The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.

There’s apparently been uproar. Good. It’s 2009, after all, and expressing admiration for unwavering conviction to a faith is a ridiculous and medieval…

…oh, no, wait. The uproar is because saying anything relating to warfare that isn’t ‘soldiers are brave’ apparently means ‘I want soldiers to die’. Sigh. Can we not just put ‘I support people not dying’ in the same category of the blindingly-obvious as ‘you have the right to your opinion’ and stop wasting time saying it / demanding people say it? It’s like we still believe in spells.

Quotes of the day

Both from Ben Goldacre’s latest:

“I am talking about a long-standing discipline—an art and a science—that has been with us since ancient Egyptian, Roman, Babylonian and Assyrian times. It is part of the Chinese, Muslim and Hindu cultures… Criticism is deeply offensive to those cultures,” says Tredinnnick: “and I have a Muslim college in my constituency.”

That’s Conservative MP David Tredinnick defending his view that the moon is evil. To cleanse:

The honourable Member for Braintree cited evidence from The Sun, so I want to refer to a recent edition of the British Medical Journal.

That’s Evan Harris, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West & Abingdon (from a different debate).

Coventry Telegraph on non-religious naming ceremonies

This week’s Coventry Telegraph has a feature on non-religious naming ceremonies, and they interviewed my sister about her choice of Humanist naming ceremony. They’re on page 4:

“I really had no idea you could do anything like that,” said Jane, 23, from Claverdon. “But it is a great idea because otherwise you are stuck with having a christening in a church and making promises which you don’t really believe in or otherwise doing nothing.

Go Jane. The BHA’s naming ceremonies aren’t as well known as they could be, and it’s great to see them getting some publicity.

The Bible is not a science book

There was a wonderful moment in this evening’s Christianity: A History, when Colin Blakemore asked a Vatican astronomer why he doesn’t think the Earth is only 6000 years old. Said astronomer replied that the Bible doesn’t have to be taken completely literally, because it’s not a science book. How do we know it’s not a science book? Because science books need to be updated, while the Bible doesn’t.

Srsly. This actually happened. I have no idea what he meant, but it only applied to the old testament – the new testament is obviously completely true, and we know so because it says so in the Bible.

The Vatican dude was a bit rubbish, to be honest – a Creation Museum ‘astrophysicist’ was better, as he was intellectually honest enough to admit that when evidence defies scripture, he chooses scripture. It’s ridiculous, but at least it’s not couched in desperate justifications.

It was a decent documentary, actually. These shows often go a bit Robert Winston, and end up all wishy-washy we wouldn’t-want-to-offend-religious-people, and trying to find some line between ‘the two extremes’. Not this time: Colin Blakemore ended by expressing his opinion that science will eventually explain the religious impulse, at which point Christianity, along with all religions, will be dead in the water. I’m not entirely sure about that, but it was good to see someone expressing a proper opinion rather than trying to ‘start a debate’ by lobbing potshots from safe ground.

Christian comebacks to the Atheist Bus Campaign

The Atheist Bus Campaign adverts are coming down in the next few days, after an amazingly successful month. They’ve been a remarkable talking-point1, similar adverts are going up all around the world, and they annoyed, then embarrassed, Christian Voice. All great results, but they’re also apparently the vanguard for a wave of god-related banners:

A trinity of Christian groups have created their own series of advertisements to run across London buses

Fair enough, let’s see what they’ve got. Here’s the first, from the Christian Party:

There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.

Quite the non-sequitur. A double helping, in fact. Why would the existence of god mean I should join the Christian party? And are the last two clauses linked? Will joining the Christian Party2 help me enjoy my life? How? It’s easy to see why ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’ would make sense, but this? It’s a little cultish. And pretty tacky: using ‘god exists’ to advertise your political party is just cheap. Next?

There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life.

Reports differ on the wording and formatting: the Telegraph says it’s “There is God, believe! Don’t Worry. Enjoy your life!”. Whatever. As a comeback, it’s (ahem) godawful.

Really, that’s the best you could do? No kind of logical rebuttal? Admittedly this is only a bus poster, but the atheist campaign said a lot in the word ‘probably’ – that was really something to get your teeth into, as it led into the philosophical arguments and the nature of reasonable belief. This banner just says ‘no no no. we win’. And if the Guardian is to be believed, resorts to shouting like a street-corner evangelist. Weak. And the last one?

The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.

My irony meter. You has broken it.

Seriously? After all that complaining over the horrendously insulting “now stop worrying and enjoy your life” you’re calling atheists ‘fools’? And with a quote from your magical book, no less? That’s certainly authoritative. Well done. Maybe your follow-up campaign can be ‘I AM A REAL BOY’.  That’ll do it.

Overall, not impressive. And these are all marketing criticisms – don’t even start me on the philosophical objections. Elsewhere, the BHA’s response has a lovely air of amused we-have-better-things-to-do, and Nullifidian.net ponders whether the new banners will – hide your irony meters – break advertising rules. I think the best response is to point and laugh.

  1. sometimes a bit disappointing: did anyone see Adrian Childs on The One Show saying they promote amorality? wtf? []
  2. incidentally, their website weirdly says: “Christianity is not a religion as such, it is a dynamic relationship with God in Christ Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Right then. []