I am an atheist.
This is not a particularly shocking statement in the UK in 2016. My partner is an atheist, all my friends are atheists and a hefty chunk of my family is too, even though we come from Irish Catholic stock. So whilst this is in no way unusual being an atheist had always left me as part of a minority as most people belonged to some kind of religion, the main flavour in Britain being Anglican Christians. But no longer; I am now in the majority.
The British Social Attitudes Survey is the longest running and most comprehensive survey of social attitudes amongst the British public. Each year they personally interview more than 3000 people in their own homes, about triple the number a typical survey that you might hear about in the news would question. Addresses are chosen at random from all over the country as opposed to just standing in the street and trying to grab passers by so that a truly representative cross section of the public is taken into account.
48.5% of people questioned said that they had no religion compared to 43.8% who said that they were some kind of Christian. The largest proportion of those Christians were still Anglicans, at 19.8%, but this is a number that has more than halved since the survey was first done in 1983. Only 7.7% described themselves as belonging to a religion other than Christianity.
In my eyes it would now not be accurate to describe the United Kingdom as a Christian country. I raised this with my father last week, mostly just to annoy him. Once his palpitations had subsided he settled into a general air of disgust and then defiance simply refusing to accept the figures. In his defence, there are surveys that paint a different picture.
Famously, the decennial UK census of 2011 found that 75% belonged to a religion of some kind and that Christians alone made up 59.3% of the population. That’s a huge disparity between the two surveys, they can’t both be right. So how do we explain it? The obvious place to start is the wording of the question. The problem with the census question was that it was controversial before it had even been asked of the public. There was an outcry amongst secular and humanist groups who recognised it as a loaded question. The 2011 census asked:
What is your religion?
Whilst the BSA survey asked:
Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes: Which?
Of course, I am coming at this from a particular angle, I’m an atheist; but I think there is a very strong case to be had for saying that the latter of those two questions is the fairer. There is an enormous assumption in the wording of the Government census question that presumes everyone has a religion. I believe, then, that the BSA question is the unbiased one and that this gives the more representative picture of Britain today.
You could ask why any of this matters. Who cares what beliefs people have? So long as they’re not hurting anyone they can believe what they like, right? Well, yes, of course; except that I don’t think they’re not hurting anyone. It isn’t a coincidence that Christians tend to produce little Christians, Muslims tend to make little Muslims and so on. If you are raised in a religious family then you are exposed to certain traditions and ways of thinking from a very young age. As a child you naturally look up to, learn from and copy the older members of your family, nothing could be more natural. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my 6 year old daughter has been asking me questions about souls and heaven this weekend having just spent a week in the company of my father.
To teach children that myths and fables from thousands of years ago are not only facts but a basis around which to form your morality and the foundation of your life is wrong; a betrayal of the trust they innocently place in your hands. To persuade anyone to uncritically accept magic as reality (unless you’re a magician) is doing harm to them. The compartmentalisation and distortions of reality required to believe in religion are a dangerous precedent to set in a young mind, and bear not unrelated similarities to those involved in evolution denial, global warming denial, belief in conspiracy theories and in the anti-vaccination movement.
Asides from the dangers to the individual there are those that act at the level of society itself. Whilst not nearly such a problem in the UK as in the insanely religious US there is, nonetheless, a problem with Christian privilege here. Spokespeople for Christian groups would have us believe that they are the hard done by ones but they actually wield a disproportionate amount of power. The prime example is that of the 26 bishops of the Church of England that all automatically get a seat in the House of Lords, the second chamber of the UK parliament. It is staggering that this is still the case in the 21st century.
On the upside, when the figures are broken down by age there is good reason to be optimistic for the future. In the under 30 years group atheism is at about 75% so a few decades from now the UK really will be a nation of atheists. Whilst a lack of belief in religion does not perforce lead to an increase in critical thinking, which is what I would ultimately like to see, I think it’s a positive trend.
I originally ended this article on a conciliatory note, saying that religion isn’t all bad and that the sense of community it brings and such can be a good thing. But that’s not what I really think, that’s just be trying to be nice. What I really think is that religion is a poison. Religion is a cancer. Whatever metaphor works best for you. It is a scam, a con, a deceit that is a net negative force in this world. I think religion needs to die and should be killed. It doesn’t deserve our respect anymore than astrology does and I don’t respect the views of people who follow a religion anymore than I do those who read their horoscopes of a morning.
For those wondering, I’m very happy to teach my daughter about religions, I think they’re something she needs to know about. But when she asks me what religion she/we are, and she has several times, I just say that me and her mother are atheists but that she can make up her own mind when she’s older.