11 December 2012

A quarter of Brits are non-religious

The UK’s 2011 census results are in, and they contain good news for humanists, atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people. You may remember the high-profile campaign ran by the British Humanist Association last year encouraging non-religious citizens to tick the ‘No religion’ box on the census. The campaign may have had an effect after all, as the results below indicate:

  • The number of non-religious people has increased from 15 percent in 2001 to 25 percent in 2011.

  • The number of Christians has dropped from 72 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011.

  • The number of Jedi Knights has more than halved, dropping from approximately 390,000 in 2001 to 176,632 in 2011.

That’s a dramatic decrease in the number of self-identified Christians with a corresponding large jump in the irreligious population. The BHA’s campaign urging so-called Jedi to stop being silly and just put themselves down as ‘no religion’ may have played a part in the massive drop in Jedi numbers. BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson responded to the census data with the following comments:

This is a really significant cultural shift. In spite of a biased question that positively encourages religious responses, to see such an increase in the non-religious and such a decrease in those reporting themselves as Christian is astounding. Of course these figures still exaggerate the number of Christians overall – the number of believing, practicing Christians is much lower than this and the number of those leading their lives with no reference to religion much higher.
Religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline in this country, and non-religious identities are on the rise. It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities and stopped privileging religious bodies with ever increasing numbers of state-funded religious schools and other faith-based initiatives. They are decreasingly relevant to British life and identity and governments should catch up and accept that fact.

The UK is not yet as secular as countries like Japan, Sweden and Denmark, but amazingly it has become less religious, even less Christian, than Australia: 22 percent of Aussies have no religion (compared with 25 percent of Brits) while 61 percent of Aussies are Christian (compared with 59 percent of Brits). Still, both countries are much less religious than the US, which remains an anomaly among rich, developed countries with 73 percent of Americans identifying as Christians (though the number of non-religious Americans is rising).

The steady increase in the non-religious demographic in not only the UK, but Australia and the US also, is an encouraging sign that secular ideas and values are being embraced by more and more people in these countries. Religion will still be around for a while, and may even pull off a modest comeback, but social trends in the developed world are evidently not in its favour. Let’s celebrate that.


06 December 2012

A good definition of philosophy

Recently on his show The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly claimed that “Christianity is not a religion, it is a philosophy.” Yes, eyeroll, facepalm and headdesk. This is, of course, the same guy who doesn’t know what causes the tides.

I suspect that O’Reilly isn’t the only one who misunderstands what the term ‘philosophy’ actually means. It’s likely that a lot of folks cannot explain the difference between a philosophy and a religion (Christianity is most assuredly the latter, a fact that O’Reilly later concedes). Roberto Ruiz, who blogs at Philosophy Monkey, wrote the following post defining what philosophy is, and what it isn’t.

Unfortunately, the word philosophy is used, misused and abused by all kinds of people. For some, like the local drunk at your nearest bar, for instance, it means the semi-coherent and misogynistic ramblings about the “deep truths” he has “discovered” through dozens of failed relationships, and that he can’t help but share with you. For others, it means some sort of “deep” motto, like “believe in yourself.” A slightly more respectable version still is that of a worldview: a set of ideas by which you lead your life, and which, with any luck, are not incompatible with each other.
But for philosophers, philosophy is not a thing... it’s an activity: it is the pursuit of wisdom (the good and the true) by means of rational conceptual analysis, by rigorous and systematic observation, by synthesizing the very best knowledge that we acquire from the sciences, by subjecting claims to rational scrutiny, by questioning what others take for granted, and by developing the existential courage to confront the harshness of reality head-on without having to delude ourselves with comforting beliefs and illusions. Philosophy is something we do, not something we “have”.
Whatever its merits, however, religion is not that. In philosophy, we investigate to find answers, and we go where the evidence takes us. In religion, you start with your preconceived belief first, and then look for ways to back it up later. Philosophy is inquiry; religion is rationalization.

Religion may contain philosophy, but philosophy doesn’t require religion. In fact, religion is often the antithesis of philosophy, with its tendency to favour dogma and orthodoxy over freedom of thought and robust skepticism.