Maybe Richard Dawkins (photo) should work
for the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, seeing that he has now
become the arbiter of Christian orthodoxy!
(Photo attributed to David Shankbourne and
published under a creative commons licence -
Needless to say, the questions asked in this poll were loaded in such a way that the the survey's inevitable conclusion would be that most Christians aren't Christian! From reading the findings of this RDFRS/Ipos MORI poll, it also appears to me that the Dawkins Foundation - like its founder - really doesn't know what Christianity is.
It is possible to be an ignorant Christian, for example, or a heterodox one. And although heretics were once declared anathema and therefore cast out of the Church completely, one could not deny that they themselves may have remained sincere followers of Christ in their own hearts. Arius was a Christian, even if he had fallen into heresy - in fact his error influenced a large sway of the Church in the forth century. Many good and holy men and women, such as Julian of Norwich, who was praised by Pope Benedict XVI in a recent address, would probably have failed stringent orthodoxy tests - Julian claimed that God was never angry, for example. In the early Church, too, when many dogmas had not yet been formally defined, many martyrs and saints may not have been able to check their faith against the canons of later Councils.
Without the slightest hint of irony, though, Richard Dawkins now believes that a set of rules drawn up by his Foundation can determine who is or isn't a "real" Christian. Only a deluded man would proclaim himself an atheist on the one hand, yet presume to know more than others about theology or spirituality on the other. Thankfully, this Dawkinsian delusion is actually leading more souls to Christ as ordinary people see through his flawed reasoning. Referring to the findings of his Foundation's poll on yesterday's Today programme, Richard Dawkins seemed convinced that it has now been objectively confirmed that most Christians aren't really Christian. One couldn't invent such madness!
Dawkins' understanding of Christianity is rather eccentric or selective to say the least. He is obsessed with the Bible, for example - as if all the disciples of Jesus Christ belong to some post-Reformation sola scriptura kind of sect. He forgets that throughout the centuries many, many believers in Christ weren't that bothered about having a Bible at home - they couldn't afford one for starters. Maybe this extreme Protestant view of Christianity that Dawkins appears obsessed with reflects his own upbringing, or the culture of his boyhood? It doesn't conform to that simple and child-like Christian faith which has been and continues to be lived out by so many throughout the world.
Is reading the Bible a necessary mark of being a Christian?
One of the questions in the poll, as well as the significance placed on it by Richard Dawkins, suggests that the well-known atheist believes that a person must have read the Bible at least once in the past year in order to be a "real" Christian. Like so many others, I find this assertion frankly bizarre.
The New Testament as we now know it wasn't canonically approved by the Church until at least the forth-century, whilst the vast majority of Christians throughout the Church's history never even touched copies of Sacred Scripture -their knowledge of Biblical stories and events would have been passed on to them through culture, plays, paintings, songs and sermons. Until recently, most people wouldn't have had the opportunity read the Bible even if hey desired to do so - either because they couldn't read or because they couldn't find the money to buy one. Until the late Middle Ages, even extremely wealthy men and women didn't have private copies of Sacred Scripture in their homes. According to Dawkins, though, all these people could not have been "real" Christians. An atheist he may be, but it does strike me that Dawkins' non-theistic beliefs are a reaction to a truncated form of Protestantism, from which his ideas about Christianity seem to derive.
Although the private reading of Scripture can lead to sanctification, it is by no means essential for salvation. Reading the Bible at least once a year is not a defining sign of being a follower of Jesus Christ, even if the high priest of atheism has declared it to be so. And, although I am deeply interested in Biblical scholarship, and can read the New Testament in Greek, I most definitely don't consider that my relationship with Christ rests on being as Biblically proficient as St Jerome. Neither does it depend upon being able to quote Scripture chapter and verse like some obsessive Evangelical - many of whom it would seem share Dawkins' belief that Catholics are not real Christians.
Dawkins' conviction that those 60% of self-identifying Christians surveyed by his Foundation who haven't read parts of the Bible during the past year are not "real" followers of Christ only really proves his own arrogance. It also points to Dawkins' own lack of knowledge concerning the things of God. These self-identified Christians may not be Biblical scholars, they may not be particularly devout, but one cannot assume or assert that because of this they are not disciples of Jesus Christ.
Must we be devout to be disciples of the Lord?
Having said that, some of the RDFRS/Ipsos MORI poll's findings do suggest that Christians in the UK are not very engaged in the practice of their faith. Apparently, only 49% of the nation's Christians attended a church service in the past 12 months, whilst 12% claim that they have never attended one at all. Seeing that the eremitic life is an increasingly popular vocation within the Church, though, we could speculate that many of Britain's Christians are choosing to live a desert spirituality, outside the camp so to speak? Yes, not many of the baptised regularly go to church, but this does not necessarily mean that they are no longer Christian.
During times of persecution, many Christians have found it difficult to worship in churches - not being able to do so did not lessen their allegiance to Christ. In fact, it probably confirmed it. Those who live in modern Britain, though not persecuted for their faith, are hounded by society's obsession with work, money and constant consumerism. Is it any wonder then that, even if they may want to go to a Sunday service, many people nowadays believe that they neither have the time nor energy to do so? A subtle form of anti-Christianity within society or scandals within the Church itself may have put many people off going to church, but this doesn't mean that they have stopped believing in Christ.
It is true to say that Christians who have not been formed properly or given good catechises, but who do have a desire to be followers of Jesus, cannot be expected to know the importance of corporate worship or attendance at church services, such as Mass. It is no fault of their own if they are ignorant of the basics concerning what is expected of them as disciples of Christ. In that respect, it is very difficult for any of us who may have been granted the grace of a good understanding of the Christian faith to find fault with those who do wish to follow Christ more dearly but who just don't seem to know how to go about it. It is the active members of the Church who are often the ones at fault when those who call themselves Christian or who wish to be disciples of Jesus have not been instructed properly. The fact, though, that many of Britain's Christians may not have been taught the basics does not mean that they are not - to a certain extent, at least - disciples of the Lord.
Would you refer to yourself as "religious" in an opinion poll? I probably wouldn't.
Much was made by Richard Dawkins of a finding in his Foundation's poll which suggested that 50% of British Christians do not consider themselves to be religious. But what does it mean to be "religious"? I don't think of myself as being particularly religious, though I am sure that my agnostic sister - for one - probably thinks of me as someone who is obsessed with religion. I also know from my time amongst Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians in the 1990s that many charismatic "Bible believers" do not wish to be tainted (as they see it) with term "religious". Many of these characters view being religious as a "Papist" or "Catholic" thing, and therefore usually insist on identifying themselves as people of "faith" as opposed to followers of a "religion". Although these Evangelicals misunderstand the meaning of the word religion, confusing it with being Pharisaical, many ordinary Christians would also not feel comfortable in calling themselves religious - because to do so implies a kind of spiritual pride or boastfulness. Yet another flaw in Dawkins' Christian orthodoxy test.
Have we ever had a time when all Christians were 'orthodox'?
Worryingly, it also seems that many people who consider themselves to be Christian do not actually believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God - 49% according to the poll. But yet again this just proves that Christians in Britain have not received a proper grounding in the faith. It also points to the fact that the UK has been in schism if not heresy for centuries. Orthodox Christian teachings are bound to have been watered-down, if not destroyed, during the past 400 years of Protestantism and relativism. But this is not the fault of the people who live in Britain today. Without having been given proper instruction in the faith and after having been subject to a State Church that is more in tune with the Zeitgeist than the Holy Ghost, is it any wonder that many of our Christian brothers and sisters lack a basic knowledge of the faith or have become heterodox Christians?
In the early centuries of the Church, many Christians continued to keep pagan festivals or could seem to be rather à la carte in the way they chose to worship or believe - the Emperor Constantine being one such example. (Although Constantine convened one of the Church's most important Ecumenical Councils at Nicea, he remained unbaptised until the very end of his life.) It is also good to reflect on the fact that the most infamous heretics throughout the ages have still maintained that they were Christian - even if they have fallen away from that gold standard of truth which is found within the Catholic Church. And who knows whether they really remained followers of Christ or not? Surely that is a matter for them and Christ himself - who famously said: "whoever is not against us is for us" (cf Mk 9:40). It is definitely not a matter upon which Richard Dawkins - who does not even believe in God - is qualified to judge, even if he claims that his Foundation's commissioned poll has done all the objective judging for him!
Dawkins v Fraser - The rumble on the radio
Many have already noted that during his appearance on the BBC yesterday, Dawkins was hoisted by his own petard. It happened whilst he was discussing the poll's findings with a former Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, Rev Giles Fraser - a man whose own theology is considered unorthodox by many. Despite his theological failings - I, for one, am no fan of his pro-gay stance - it must be said that Fraser really did a good job in defending the Christian faith and highlighting Dawkins' delusion live on air.
During the broadcast, Richard Dawkins smugly claimed that 64% of the self-identified Christians polled were not able to identify Matthew as the first book in the New Testament. The inference being that these people could not therefore have been "real" Christians and should not be considered as such. In response, Giles Fraser challenged Dawkins by asking him to prove by the same measure that he is in fact a Darwinian. For the benefit of those who did not hear it, here is a transcript of the conversation between these two men: -
Fraser: Richard, if I said to you what is the full title of The Origin Of Species, I’m sure you could tell me that.
Dawkins: Yes I could.
Fraser: Go on then.
Dawkins: On the Origin of Species...Uh... With, oh, God... On the Origin of Species... there is a sub-title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life....Seeing that Dawkins didn't appear to know the full title of Darwin's seminal book (he missed out "by Means of Natural Selection"), are we able assume that he knows nothing about the nineteenth-century biologist? Just because the high priest of atheism was not able to clearly state that On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is the original and complete title for Charles Darwin's book, does it mean that he is also no longer a believer in evolution? Also, Dawkins also sought help from God during this little interaction, does this demonstrate that he now believes in Him? To all three questions, we may properly answer "of course not".. Fraser 1 - Dawkins 0.
It was good to hear Dawkins failing his own test live on the radio. It assured all those Christians who, like me, do not know all the ins and outs of every single doctrine of the faith that knowing about Christ is not the same as wishing, even in the tiniest sense, to follow him. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not about passing a theoretical test, it is more about seeking out the truth in, with and through that love he has for us. It is about saying a simple yes to Christ, who is the one who chooses us .... Oh, and one of the defining marks of being a Christian - or a member of the Church, at least - is to have received the Sacrament of Baptism; which, thankfully, is what 72% of British Christians surveyed by Dawkins also believe!