Faith, Practice and Religious Illiteracy


“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it.”  Friedrich Schleiermacher (Addresses on Religion, 1799)

TWO THINGS caught my attention last week.  One was the total lunar eclipse, which was magnificent to see.  The other, not so nice, is a post by someone whose work I have often enjoyed, Julian Baggini, in an unfortunate piece in The Guardian that probably wouldn’t survive a fact-check in an American newspaper.

It concerns what even he says is an unscientific survey of “beliefs” held by British churchgoers in Bristol, UK, using the following procedure:

“The online version [of my survey] was taken by a self-selecting sample of 767 churchgoers, the majority of whom read Comment is Free [his Guardian blog] at least occasionally and who are mostly aged 18-35. This is not a representative sample of typical practising Christians. The paper version was completed by 141 churchgoers in Bristol, again not randomly sampled.”

And with this vote of self-confidence in the result:

“These apparent limitations in some ways make the results even more interesting, because you’d expect the sample group in both instances to be more educated and liberal than the average. We can then be fairly confident that the surveys would not overstate the extent to which people held conventional, some might say more simplistic, versions of Christian doctrine.”

Leaving aside the improbability of anyone taking (or bothering to take) an “I go to church”- survey in England being unrepresentative of an “I go to church”-sample, but more “liberal than the average,” the study is very strange at a number of levels, which already disqualifies it for global significance.  It absolutely disqualifies it in America, where religious knowledge is at an all time low, but (predictably) constantly mapped and charted in more empirical ways.

But it also is, as Jonathan Chaplin says, a non-starter in England,  a country of smart but lazy people who generally like Christmas but don’t generally like sermons.  Chaplin notes the procedural and methodological shortcomings of Baggini’s survey, but focuses most of his attention on the “Four Articles” which the author proposes as a way forward in creating atheist-religious dialogue.  Unfortunately, Julian seems intent on wanting religious people to come to the bargaining table naked, presuppositionally speaking.  While I applaud his effort to get atheists talking to religious people who are open to a sane view of the world, I’m not at all sure that this survey helps the conversation along.

THE following ORB (1999) Poll tells the story of religion’s decline in the UK, and all subsequent polls show similar southward drift for all religions except, of course,  Islam. (The Empire bites back).

About Jesus Christ:

14% do not know who he is.

Less than 50% “believe in Christ”. This probably means that they do not believe that he is the son of God; the exact meaning of the question was not defined.

22% believe that he is “just a story.”

Church affiliation:

49% identify themselves as affiliated with a religious group.

27% belong to the Church of England (Episcopalian, Anglican). This is a drop from 40% in 1990.

(The latest YouGov poll cited by the British Humanist Association notes that by 2015, the level of church attendance in the UK is predicted to fall to 3,081,500 people, or 5% of the population.)  

9% are Roman Catholics, unchanged since 1990.

Church attendance:

3% of the population goes to church only at Easter and Christmas.

46% say that they have never gone to church at all.

Baggini’s upshot, if that is the word,  is that he thinks that given the choice between Christianity being all about practice or belief, belief wins.  He is writing as a philosopher of popular culture whose interest in the subject is correspondingly tentative:

 So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

Remember the silly game everyone played five years ago ending every sentence with the non-sequitur ”in bed,” and how much you wanted it to be funny but it almost never was?  We need to finish that paragraph with, “In Bristol.”  Actually, its parochialism doesn’t begin to suggest the problem with the survey: its problem is inherent to the very questions that the surveyor posed.  But more on this later….

BAGGINI’S survey may play well with atheists who are looking for any reason, any at all, that church-going is eo ipso irrational, but it is embarrassing for those of us who pore over serious literature and surveys of the morphology of belief. Not that everyone needs to have read everything on the topic, but it beggars imagination that he does not bother to know any of the recent literature on faith and practice in its wider context:  Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy (2008) and his American Jesus (2003) for starters,  but even (the work of someone with whom I rarely agree) Rodney Stark’s What Americans Really Believe (2008) is statistically important, and University of Chicago sociologist of religion Alan Wolfe’s superb book The Transformation of American Religion  (2005).  If on the other hand he intended his survey to be limited to Bristol, why call the survey, grandly,  ”The Myth that religion is more about practice than belief”?  Them’s fightin’ words.

While the professional God-haters try to persuade us that religion is the same old bugaboo that it always was (All the better to melt your brain my dears)  serious researchers like Wolfe have come up with a very different picture: American culture, he says,  has come to dominate American religion to such a point that “We are all mainstream now.” The stereotype of religion as a fire-and-brimstone affair is obsolete. Gone is the language of sin and damnation, and forgotten are the clear delineations between denominations.  They have been replaced with a multi-dimensional God and a trend towards sampling new creeds and doctrines. “American religion is less radical, less contentious, and less dangerous than it is generally perceived to be.”

I am not entirely convinced that every part of Wolfe’s assessment of the transformation of religion in America is dead-on accurate, especially in political terms, but the trends he discusses are real enough and the transformation of evangelical Protestantism shows that it has been as much affected by being “mainstreamed” as it was effective in influencing the mainstream.  A part of this transformation has been doctrinal accommodation, the process first described by Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy and much revised in his 2008 study, Religious America.  Berger was surprised that the process of secularization was not irreversible (i.e., does not lead to the eradication of religious belief) but transformative: religion learns to live within and to transform a culture. The prophetic version of the same idea was put forward in 1951 in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.

The larger question is implied by Baggini’s verdict that religious practice is a discrete matter, separate from faith or at least from certain metaphysical propositions. As a philosopher he is undoubtedly thinking of the Kantian tradition where this bifurcation is normative. Practice is the realm of the senses, and usually means à la Schleiermacher and his successors, doing good or doing what duty (Pflicht) requires. If it can be shown that religion relies heavily on irrational propositions offered as “claims,” however, then the do-good part of religion might be rendered comparatively minor, which, of course, is where a certain kind of atheist might struggle to keep it–in the chambers of some discredited rule-ethics hell.  But this approach, even in Bristol, would require us to turn the clock back on the understanding of  faith and practice three hundred years, dig up Bishop Ussher  (or Michael Wigglesworth if you prefer), parade him through the streets and say, “Scary, isn’t he?”

Most Christians experience faith and practice as two prongs of the same fork.  More important perhaps, the terms “faith” and “practice” are theological conventions going back to the fifth century writer Prosper of Aquitaine, not scientific ones.  Anthropology since the late nineteenth century has  operated on the assumption that doctrine and to a lesser extent dogma are rationalizations of religious behaviour: practice precedes doctrine (belief in a systematic and codified form) and liturgy (codified behaviour) and also modifies it.  The  ritual (practice)-myth (story) relationship has been a topic since E. B Tylor first studied indigenous cultures in the late nineteenth century, though he thought ritual came second in the order of religious culture.  The myth/belief- first and the ritual/praxis-first debate has been lively and inconclusive, but it is increasingly rare, as Melentinsky surveys the relationship over a number of decades, to think of belief and practice as separate domains.  Proclaiming “faith” the winner over “practice” on the basis of what 700-plus Bristol Christians think about Jesus is fatally vulnerable to scientific critique and edges near to being a false dichotomy. The late archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie recounted a sermon he once gave at a Yorkshire parish on the divinity of Jesus. It was, he said, like the belief, a bit obscure.  Following the service, an earnest old parishioner shook his hand vigorously and said to him, “You’ve convinced me sir, but then I never had a doubt, that Jesus were a very nice man.”


In previous work Baggini has at least acknowledged that religion can be relatively benign.  If Jews and Christians  acted out their faith in ways that a troubling number of Muslims still do, Christianity would be a monstrosity.  But (to parse Bultmann on why he didn’t believe in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus) it’s not in the newspaper.  The Christian-right moral agenda is a monstrosity.  American Christians meddling in politics and attempting to leverage political outcomes is a monstrosity.  The attitudes and personalities and self-righteousness of extreme-right Christian organizations, not towards just unbelievers but towards other believers is a monstrosity.  But, marvelous to note, these things, collectively, seldom add up to catastrophic outcomes.  The stories of Waco and randy Mormon elders with fourteen year-old child-brides are only newsworthy because they are exceptional–and (I have to say it) not the kind of thing that happens in Bristol.

IT’S POSSIBLE, of course, to reduce Christian belief to the presumed “absurdities” that historical Christianity has embraced over the centuries–everything (one can argue) from the trinity to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy (which is not the same East to West) to the doctrine of the Real Presence for Catholics, which is not literally maintained outside the Roman tradition.  It is also possible to embrace a more radical solution to the matter:  since all of these beliefs have the same source, they differ only in degree of irrationality and can be dismissed tamquam idem.

But to equate the most absurd things Christian extremists in the Bible Belt [see postscript below] believe with what the vast majority of Christians believe is simply statistically false.  Most Christians in Bristol (though fewer of them) are a lot like most Christians in Milwaukee. They go to church to worship God, it is true; but that their going to church expresses a robust commitment to the irrational isn’t true. They may well go to church, as William James would have calculated, because they regard churchgoing as a “live choice”– an action with an internal and subjective appeal, not a rational or forced appeal.  Or as Schleiermacher wrote in 1799, out of intuition and feeling.

Most troubling of all is Baggini’s notion that asking questions about the divinity of Jesus is of the same order as asking about the weather–ripping a first century nomen out of context and asking a naive parishioner whether he “believes” it.  Countless surveys  in America show that religious knowledge is at an all time low.  And assuming that there is some correlation between what I know (i.e., what I can define) and what I believe, “at face value,” to quote the Baggini criterion,   it would appear that the real story is that many Christians act without direct reference to anything in the doctrinal treasure chest.  Ubi ignorantia ibi nihil, as a Benedictine teacher of mine used to smile when I didn’t do my homework.  All I can assume is that Julian’s teachers weren’t Benedictine, but I know they were Catholic.

DON’T KNOW how you can take anything at face value if you don’t know the face value: Catholics in America don’t know by 50%  that their church teaches that the bread, in the Eucharist, is transformed into “the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ,” the central doctrine of the Real Presence.  The corollary of that is that they don’t know much about the sacrament of ordination, which confers this mysterious power on a priest.  This might imply similar gaps in their knowledge about even more esoteric things, like theImmaculate Conception, which their grandmother probably didn’t quite get.    No wonder they don’t know whether to genuflect, pop gum or bow politely on entering the pew.  When they did know, they bent their knees.

More startlingly, a number of studies have shown the reverse of Baggini’s conclusion: that believers throughout the Catholic world do not know or do not accept their Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception–the effect of years of disinformation and irrelevance, ignorance and indifference as to papal infallibility, and skepticism about the authority of the church in general in ethical matters. The Pew Forum Poll showed that only about half of those questioned could name the four gospels, and only 16% knew that Protestants, rather than Catholics, teach that salvation comes through faith alone.  It is difficult to imagine, given this intellectual lassitude, that anyone in America can be trusted to define the larger doctrinal issues and warrants: trinity, the divinity of Jesus, salvation and atonement, and justification even at a depreciated value.  Other polls have described the enormous elasticity not only of specific beliefs, but also the core beliefs of the Christian faith, including those associated with God and the divinity of Jesus.  Belief in God is not a constant even among worshipers who have a strong belief in god, and definitions and ideas of God differ dramatically from denomination to denomination and region to region.  Yet, many continue to “practice” their faith, perform works of kindness and mercy, and act charitably towards each other as Jesus commended.

MODEST PROPOSAL:  Reactive and Non-reactive Beliefs

It is pretty clear to anyone who studies the nature of belief and doctrine historically that Christian teaching can be divided into two categories:  Reactive belief and Nonreactive-belief.  Think of reactive belief as radioactive: it has the potential to do harm because it invites defensive and aggressive behaviour from its proponents.

Nonreactive belief is the essentially harmless and deradiated form of beliefs that are harmful and toxic:  it is the tribute money Christian faithful pay to the tradition, without being adamantly committed to any of them or especially knowledgeable about any of them to any significant degree.  It is not that they are entirely negotiable, but they are subject to the form of negotiation called interpretation.  Many Christians are not especially curious about them, though some are. Most reactive belief is dogmatic.  Most nonreactive belief is intuitive, though sometimes it is expressed in doctrine.

In the Reactive category, I would put the following:

  • The plenary inspiration or uniqueness of a sacred text, whether the Bible or Qur’an
  • Any ethical or moral system derived from that doctrine
  • Doctrines and theories of war or social practice based on the theory of inspiration
  • A political system or theory of the state, church or mosque that took its guiding principles from a scriptural perspepctive, or understood that perspective as normative
  • Any claims that scriptural teaching possesses historical, humanistic or scientific authority over scientific inquiry, experiment, and investigation
  • Eschatology (a “lively” belief in the end of the world, punishment, reward); especially the doctrine of satisfaction, or the physical pleasures of the elect, as in Islam and some minor sects of Christianity

It would be interesting to see a survey in which only questions about these beliefs were asked. Anyone who holds such beliefs could not be expected to have a serious conversation with a non-believer; nor would he be likely to have a very long conversation with most Christian  believers.

In the Nonreactive category, I would place all intra- and supra-biblical doctrines that (even if they claim scriptural warrant)  have no practical implications and no clear relevance to ordinary life.  These beliefs have largely been rendered harmless through millennia of development and, especially, interpretation.  They are the core beliefs of Christianity in an “honorary” or traditional sense, and are therefore irrelevant to any discussion between atheists and Christian believers.

  • Belief in God and interpretations of that belief
  • The “divinity” of Jesus, including the story of his resurrection
  • Much of the non-apocalyptic teaching of Jesus (e.g., love of neighbour)
  • The doctrine of merit earned through human achievement
  • Belief in the special status of the human person
  • The mortal existence of the human soul as an expression of humanity
  • The worship of God as a communal expression of faith
  • Many parochial and specific doctrines of a largely devotional nature, e.g, the eucharist

I cannot help but notice that Julian Baggini’s survey  largely focuses on questions about the non-reactive and “honorary” beliefs of the faith. (Respondents could hardly have been counted on to endorse the most reactive ones.)  There are connections between the two lists, of course, and anyone not wont to make distinctions or explore the process of theological development can be forgiven for putting a pox on both lists.  I understand categorical rejection of religious beliefs; I just do not support it.

But categorical rejection isn’t as easy as it looks.  It is not as simple as saying, for example,  “The divinity of Jesus is based on the doctrine of plenary inspiration” and is thus reactive. In fact that is not true. The divinity of Jesus is an interpretation that cannot rely on the “clear and obvious sense” of the Bible.  It isn’t the case that the belief in revelation entails plenary inspiration, or that salvation entails doctrines of heaven and hell–not even in their biblical form.  The resurrection of Jesus, like the account of the creation of the world in Genesis, are stories rather than beliefs or doctrines.  Neither appears to be ‘reactive’ to me, though at a literal level they are false..

The disjunct between reactive and nonreactive doctrines is also clear from the practice of most Christians: the Christianity most critics of fundamentalism deplore consists of attempts to export and impose reactive beliefs.  The essentially irrelevant Christianity that bothers almost no one and seems to interest fewer and fewer people, except hardshell atheists, is essentially nonreactive.



NATURALLY when it comes to religion, context matters.  I once heard a “British evangelical” described as someone who still believes church services are held on Sunday. Pollsters have operated for decades now on the knowledge that Christianity is really “Christianities,” to remember Oxford religionist Peggy Morgan‘s famous caution about “religious ethics.” Christianity is stratified by doctrine, first of all, but then geographically as well.  ”Geographically” moreover does not mean just London, Paris and New York, but sectorally across the United States.  H. L. Mencken was the first person to use the term Bible Belt as a description, but he was simply being attentive to what later sociologists would graph as “audience” for religious radio (later TV), and core traditional-conservative protestant values and beliefs. BB-Christianity tended to be poor, white, southern or southwestern uneducated and defensive–almost isolationist–rather than aggressive.  Core beliefs included the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by faith-experience (born againism), and of course the source of all of it: the inerrant authority of the Bible. Two early, and still readable,  basic studies were George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (1980) and S.W. Tweedie’s seminal article “Viewing the Bible Belt” in the Journal of Popular Culture (11; 865-76). The worst study of the subject, alas, because he was a first-class biblical scholar in other ways, was Oxford’s James Barr’s crack at understanding it in his 1978 book Fundamentalism.

Since those studies, conservative Christianity has grown wildly, and the Bible Belt like the rest of America has become fat. In the map following, the areas usually associated with the Belt are shown in red, but by all accounts, even Tweedie’s study, it has both a northerly and westerly direction.    Some studies identify it closely with the beliefs of about 24 conservative protestant groups; others see it more strongly and organizationally tied to the Southern Baptist Convention, which recently went on record as wanting to change its name because of “bad press” and misunderstanding of its goals.

To complicate things, there are export Bible belts as well as indigenous ones in Australia, Canada, and even the U.K.  (for some reason, in Surrey, southwest of London).  Moreover, the term is often applied outside the United States to areas which simply show a statisticaly higher than average degree of church- attendance, and which blend familiar anti-science rhetoric with socialist politics.  The Free Churches in the United Kingdom, for example (for historical reasons)  are associated with Unitarianism and have a very low doctrinal profile, but their belief would be completely out of line with the agenda of the Unitarian community in North America.

4 thoughts on “Faith, Practice and Religious Illiteracy

  1. Pingback: Faith, Practice and Religious Illiteracy |

  2. Mr. Baggini might do well to consider the arguments of my eccentric acquaintance Mr. Nailuj Iniggab. Nailuj has taken a survey of hundreds of churchgoers and has found that nearly all of them wear shoes. He offers this finding as evidence that religion requires the wearing of shoes. “Those who defend the view that religion is really not about shoes at all and does not require the wearing of shoes,” he stoutly contends, “are merely advocating an ideal of what they think religion ought to be; they are not describing the reality on the ground.”

  3. Excellent, subtle discussion, way above the level of comprehension of the average church-goer, that of the average Christian, and above the understanding of ordinary priests and ministers.

    George A. Wells, in “Belief and Make-Believe — Critical Reflections on the Sources of Credulity” (Open Court, Chicago, 1991), mentions that “Today…clergy are apt to evade the equally serious problems that have arisen as a result of the criticl study of the Bible that has developed since the 19th c…Although Anglican and other clergy will have been taught some biblical and historical criticism during their training, ‘many of them will never really have accepted it, and step easily into a sort of quasi-fundamentalism when it comes to preaching and teaching.’ Consequently, there is an ‘almost universal conspiracy to conceal the truth’ about the Bible.” (p. 77)
    And further down: “…few Christians are aware of the facts to which [the Hanson brothers, authors of “The Bible Without Illusions” (1989)] are drawing attention because ‘intellectual courage is not…an outstanding quality of clergy in the 20th c. Our two authors here perhaps underestimate the difficulties which outspokenness would bring upon the average clergyman, fearing as he surely does that manyin his congregation have no wish to be told that what they believe, and what has been believed for hundreds of years, is untrue, and knowing that few of the faithful are intellectually and emotionally equipped to assimilate scholarly reappraisals.” (p. 79)

    In this practical context, the inability or refusal to think is nearly made into a virtue by the average Christian, churchgoer or not.

    The clergy prefers to fall back on the simple indoctrination of believers relying on simple, dogmatic affirmations that are repeated endlessly and mindlessly, targeting children from a young age. The goal is to produce closed minds. This was done by the early Christian Church on a massive scale. But any new ideology and religious system does the same.
The charm of the ancient Greeks’ religion, by opposition to the ferociously dogmatic beliefs of ancient Judaism, is that they had no closed system, and never put a stop on the creativity of their thinkers

    For, according to George A. Wells in “Religious Postures” (1988, p. 21.), this is what believers want above all: No disturbing disquisition about obscure points, but being reassured in their basic beliefs with simple confirmations. They do not want the scholars’ doubts, inquiries, or arguments, :
    ” ‘He that doubteth is like the surge of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed’ (Epistle of James 1:6). James knew — as many have known (they include Nietzsche and Hitler) — that emphatic assertion is often more effective than careful statement of pros and cons; that arguments suggest the possibility of dissenting views, and that to defend one’s opinions is to admit that they are open to attack.
    What is called the old-time Bible faith , promulgated by well-organized groups with massive propaganda, gives certain and unhesitating answers, and is welcomed for that. The dogmatic moral guidance given by the Witnesses [of Jehovah], by Fundamentalists generally, and by conservative Christians spokesmen has a particularly strong appeal today.”

    Which strengthens the political correctness of “faith”.
    Religious people tend to use the word “faith” as a kind of magic shield against any intrusion in their belief system. “Faith” has become a sacrosanct word, under which all kinds of nonsense, crazy beliefs, absurd statements, are being allowed without examination or right of protest. It cannot be criticized or ridiculed, it has to be accepted as a “natural right of man”, untouchable by law. It is a fundamental principle of “political correctness.” Another effort to close the human mind.

    As Luther intimated to Erasmus, faith nearly makes it a crime for the scholar to think and evaluate the Bible statements strictly on his own accord. Blind faith requests acceptance of pure irrationality. Which is what Lorenzo Valla had been the first to reject in the mid 15th c., strongly approved and endorsed by Erasmus.

    Wells noted this thirst for reassurance by unsophisticated believers.
    And in “Religious Postures” (p. 21). He relates the case of David Jenkins, a famous English liberal theologian who left his university chair to become Bishop of Durham. Jenkins expected his flock to be eager to tap his scholarly reputation for “exploration, critical re-assessment and discovery” of modern theology.
    Jenkins was “disconcerted” to find that common believers were not interested in learning about the unsettled questions of modern controversies about the NT. They only wanted “assurance”, and “reinforcement in opinions and positions already held”.
    Wells added that their distrust of advanced scholarly research reflected the fact, worth repeating, that “emphatic assertion is often more effective than careful statement of pros and cons.”

    Rejecting critical examination is dogma in all aspects of religion, especially among fundamentalists, evangelicals, orthodox Jews. They will not like Wells’s explanations.

  4. Pingback: Professional God Hater | Choice in Dying

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