Sunday, August 13, 2006


This is an interesting comment from Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society

Do religious people really believe the incredible things that they say they do? I mean, really underneath it all, do they honestly and truly believe it? It’s something that has puzzled me for a long time now.

The question arose again this week, when a survey of 158 worshippers drawn from eight Anglican churches across Wales has revealed that superstition plays a big part in their lives even though it contradicts the teachings of their religion. Many NSS members will, at this point, be saying: “But surely their religion is a superstition in its own right?” (This is a reasonable assertion, given that the dictionary definition of superstition is “an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear”.)

Of those questioned in the survey, 29% (carried out by Bangor University) said they believed it is lucky to find a four-leaf clover and 26% said they thought it was unlucky to open an umbrella indoors. Ten per cent would wear a crucifix for luck but only 1% would use charms to protect themselves from evil.

Indeed, many people read their horoscope in the morning paper, half-convinced that it is going to tell them something important. But if you ask them ten minutes later what it said, most of them wouldn’t remember. There is an element of wishful thinking here, and Pascal’s wager comes to mind. Pascal thought you might as well believe in God because there is nothing to lose if it isn’t true and everything to gain if it is. Woody Allen put it this way: “I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”

This applies to walking under ladders, too. You might as well not do it, just in case. After all, it doesn’t take much effort to walk round, does it? Even though you know in your heart of hearts that it’s senseless.

This leads us to conjecture on how many people in the pews, and indeed, in the street, are acting on the Pascal’s wager principle. It simply doesn’t cost anything to say you believe in God, but it does save a lot of hassle about having to explain and argue. You don’t have to make any kind of commitment to that belief, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said “You don’t have to go the church to be a Christian” which is the perfect way of saying “I really couldn’t care less one way or the other. All I know is, it bores the hell out of me.”

Indifference is the true measure of religion in Britain. Research by the BBC a few years ago revealed that even many self-defined Christians, when pressed, can’t bring themselves to believe the silly things that the church demands of them. The research subjects felt confident enough to admit that they didn’t believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the miracles and all the other stuff that common sense and experience tell us are impossible. But they can’t quite let go entirely of their cultural conditioning and so they continue to define themselves as Christians.

Consequently we have the census result apparently indicating that 72% of the population of this country think they are Christians. Very few of those people could tell much about the religion they say they belong to. This suits the church hierarchy who get all the benefits of an apparent mass movement, with few of the problems (except, of course, lack of contributions).

But the increasing numbers of people demanding non-religious funerals and weddings shows that there is a greater willingness to be honest. It seems, Mr Pascal, that all bets are off.

An additional note from Jongudmund:
I've never really trusted the Pascal's Wager theory, because it strikes me that if religion is true it should be evident that it is true. To say 'I'm going to believe it anyway, just in case' turns belief into an insurance policy, and I'm not sure that's the kind of faith God would really be looking for. Using Pascal's Wager to 'convince' people to hedge their bets by subscribing to a religion is the last resort of the desperate evangelist who has no convincing evidence to back up his desire to make converts. You just wouldn't use it in any other part of life would you? "I have no evidence that gargling with baked beans will make me live to 103, but I'm going to do it every day just in case it does..."(!t works until you choke on a baked bean!)

I guess the challenge is to live convincingly, rather than argue unconvincingly and appeal to the gambling mind.


  1. He seems like a bit of an arse to me... I just looked at the NSS webite and I cannot understand why he thinks that Faith Schools wanting to employ practicing Christians is such a scandal... would anyone even raise an eyebrow if the muslim and Jewish schools refused to employ non-muslims or non-jews? I doubt it. They`d probably be applauded. It makes my blood boil, it really does...

  2. Anonymous14/8/06 10:21

    I hope and pray that, one day soon, God is going to choose to reveal himself to our Mr Sanderson in a huge and obvious way. That'll shut him up.