Is there a Christian Majority or not? It doesn’t matter

When the results of last year’s UK census came out yesterday, there was predictable interest in the responses on religion. The proportion self-identifying as Christian was down to 59% from nearly 72% a decade earlier, with “No religion” up by a similar amount to 25%. The British Humanist Association (BHA) welcomed this as a sign of a cultural shift, while some Christians continued to cling to the fact that according to these figures, they still had a majority.

The BHA are right to point out that as a way of finding out what people really believe, it would be hard to come up with a worse approach than the census question, but I feel that there’s a bigger question that isn’t being addressed: Why does it matter?

What difference does it make if this census or any other more rigorous poll concludes that the majority of the population are Christian, Atheist or Jedi? Christians like to appeal to a “Christian Majority” to promote sectarian policies, which is a good reason for emphasising the size of other groups, but I have an urge to challenge the underlying assumptions in their argument head on.

There are plenty of excellent reasons why a “Christian Majority” shouldn’t have any bearing on policy. Popularity doesn’t imply truth (obvious, but probably a necessary reminder), the significance of the figures is vague at best and almost certainly grossly misleading, and here in the UK we have a process called General Elections to determine how to run the country. The results are often considered less than ideal, but at least they express a genuine preference, rather than an implied opinion.

More than that, though, we live in a liberal democracy. You don’t ignore people’s wishes just because you outnumber them, and the founder of Christianity had a few things to say about treating others as you’d like them to treat you.

So whether or not there’s a true “Christian Majority”, that wouldn’t make it acceptable to oblige others to participate in religious services, to refuse to provide public services to people because your religion say that they’re sinners, or any other things that at least some Christians seem to associate with expressing their own religious freedom.

Whatever the size of your claimed majority, imposing your beliefs on others isn’t an appropriate response. It would be a good argument for ensuring that the majority belief isn’t being oppressed or sidelined, but that’s neither happening nor likely ever to happen. Those who claim it is are confusing oppression with losing a few highly inequitable historic privileges, and despite that, Christianity is still massively privileged above any other belief.

I have little doubt that if there was a clear atheist majority who wanted to ban all forms of religious expression, the Christians who are currently keen on emphasising their majority status would suddenly understand the need to protect minority beliefs. They’d be appalled by any attempt to suppress their beliefs, and quite rightly, but it would be nice if they could make the obvious connection.

If there’s just one person who doesn’t hold the majority belief, it doesn’t matter – it would still be wrong to disregard that person’s beliefs and expect them to fall in line with the majority. The precise details might be different in this case, but the principle of respecting each person’s conscience is exactly the same.

It’s basic common courtesy.

Photos by comedy_nose and _sarchi, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

3 responses to “Is there a Christian Majority or not? It doesn’t matter”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    I have little doubt that if there was a clear atheist majority who wanted to ban all forms of religious expression, the Christians who are currently keen on emphasising their majority status would suddenly understand the need to protect minority beliefs. They’d be appalled by any attempt to suppress their beliefs, and quite rightly, but it would be nice if they could make the obvious connection.

    Not to side with the Christians (you know me too well for that!), but this seems a little like a false equivalence. The Church of England isn’t interested in banning any forms of religious expression. I haven’t even heard the American Religious Right claiming that, although they would like to enact some oppressive policies in some cases. You could make the same point more fairly by simply talking about privilege.

    If there ever is a clear atheist majority, it would be wrong for atheists to give a special privilege to atheists in Parliament just because of their atheism, enshrined in law (as opposed to popular vote). It would be wrong for the arguments put forward by atheists to get special pleading because of who said them, rather than their merit.

    That’s the situation we’re in now with the church (apart from the majority being clear).

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I take your point, which is well made. I wasn’t aiming specifically for direct equivalence, but rather to argue from a scenario that’s often mentioned by Christians as something that’s currently happening, might happen in the future or has happened in the past.

      Because this is such a common concern, I think it’s a good starting point for basic empathy. The trouble with subtler constitutional privileges is that there’s unlikely to be any clear agreement about whether they’re wrong.

      But for a more comprehensive thesis than my few hundred words, I agree that it would be worth developing the argument to cover subtler forms of privilege.

  2. M. Rodriguez says :

    It sounds like the majority is in name only, and I’m beginning to also see that trend in america also

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