One of the most highly intelligent and intriguing atheists I respect – and follow on twitter – is Kenan Malik who recently posted an article on his blog Pandaemonium which I described as ‘deeply problematic’. You can read it here:
The article is based on research conducted by YouGov and Professor Linda Woodhead.
Linda on twitter kindly asked me to explain how the research is problematic and this is my attempt to address some of the problems in both the research and how it has been assessed.
I will use the polling results as they are presented in Kenan’s blog post as trawling through the YouGov website to find research has consistently proved to be an exercise in time wasting. Secondly I will outline just a couple of the difficulties with one or two of the questions rather than an exhaustive deconstruction of all that I think is wrong with the research and Malik’s assessment of it. And lastly as the above title implies I will only deal with a critique of the research from a Catholic perspective since I choose to focus on what I know best.
A thorny question
In response to the question as to whether the time limit on abortions should be changed, only 16% of Catholics said that abortion should be banned altogether. The problem here is both the question and the assumptions that lie behind it. Understandably but inaccurately it is assumed that devout adherents to the Catholic faith must answer in favour of immediate legislation to make all abortion illegal.
This is simply not the case. Although a serious Catholic would be hard pushed to claim adherence to the faith if they were not in favour of ultimately bringing the practice of abortion to an end, it does not follow that they favour a ‘ban’ on abortion forthwith.
How so? Simply put most intelligent anti-abortion Catholics (much like atheist pro-lifers) realise that reversing the 1967 Abortion Act, given the cultural landscape of our sexual politics, would not actually result in the ending of abortion within the UK. It is also worth noting that the Catholic Bishop’s Conference in England and Wales have not set out a case for the criminalising of all abortion straight away either.
Here the problem is less with the research itself than with Kenan Malik’s response to it which argues that two-thirds of Catholics defy ‘Vatican teaching’. Leaving aside the limited understanding of the Catholic faith that is implied by the use of that misleading phrase. The issue here is that any serious pro-lifer, whether devoutly Catholic or not could be strongly in favour of ending abortion outright and still not want to see any attempt at reducing the time limit. A number of anti-abortion Parliamentarians would like to see first the abolition of abortion on grounds of disability or at the very least the removal of that category of abortion being carried out after the 24-week limit. (nb the limit is frankly illusory since all possible need for abortion to after 24-weeks gestation is accommodated for in the law since the time limit was ‘reduced’ from 28 weeks in 1990)
Secondly there are plenty of devout Catholics who would argue that neither a total ban nor a reduction in the time limit is the best way to progress in reducing and ultimately ending the perceived need for abortion in our society. What is required is a cultural change in attitudes to sexual responsibility and women’s equal dignity and status in society. In other words the very practical and reasoned understanding that, changes to the law follow, and do not precede, cultural change.
As an analogy one might consider those who believe that at an international level we should seek total global disarmament of nuclear weapons, but would not respond in a poll in favour of immediate and complete unilateral nuclear disarmament within the UK, as the only purpose in UK disarmament would be as part and parcel of strategic process to rid the world of the possibility of nuclear war.
The question of whether reducing the (illusory) time limit on decriminalised abortion actually facilitates the cultural change that pro-lifers and most Catholics want to see is not a settled one, even amongst the most committed of pro-lifers. And certainly neither is support for an immediate criminalising of all induced abortion.
The only Catholics in this poll that could be said to be in complete defiance of their identified religion is the 5% who would seek to raise the abortion time limit, but then some self-identified Catholics work in abortion clinics so go figure!
In turning to the second issue which I want to address; it is worth mentioning that Linda Woodhead is quoted as stating that there is a ‘moral minority’ of strict believers, that ‘amounts to almost 4% of the population’. This phraseology perhaps indicates what angle Professor Woodhead is coming from, or she may have meant it in the most neutral of senses, it is best not to presume. However the most problematic of the research questions relates to what influences religious people in terms of moral guidance. Here respondents were asked about the source on which they most relied for moral guidance (emphasis mine) and given a list of categories ranging from science to family and trusted friends.
The most obvious problem here is that most of the categories are not mutually exclusive, particularly obvious would be the categories of ‘own reason and judgement’ and ‘own intuition or feelings’. I am sure that even the most basic level psychology or anthropology would tell you that these two are entirely intertwined and by no means in any true philosophical sense in necessary conflict with one another. In deciding not to kick a cat or punch a traffic warden any person tempted to do either is as likely to be using both their reason and their intuition in equal measure as one more than the other, and for that matter is likely to be using both in later assessing which they most rely on!
From the Catholic perspective the most misleading of the categories is ‘reason and judgement’ as opposed to ‘tradition and teachings of my religion’. Here Catholics opted 29% for reason and 8% for religion. Malik suggests such answers indicate that ‘few believers these days seem to find moral authority in religion itself’, and reveal ‘a greater willingness to think for oneself, and to use reason as a means of moral decision making’ However even Malik concedes that the categories seem to overlap to a large degree. But I think neither he and certainly not those who constructed the question realise how much and particularly for Catholics.
Critically the teaching authority of the Catholic faith teaches Catholics to use their reason. In his letter to all Catholics entitled Faith and Reason John Paul II argues precisely this.
To quote ‘Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. For the near one in three respondents who placed reason and own judgement as their main moral guidance there is absolutely nothing to suggest that their answer in any way departs from their religion, since their faith demands that they use their own judgement, just as it repudiates the abandonment of reason and judgement when making moral decisions. The point is that even the most authentic and humbly pious of Catholics makes moral decisions ultimately using their own judgement but that this reasoned judgement is informed and enlightened by faith.
Most if not all committed Catholics in deciding whether they supported military intervention by Western powers in Syria last week will not have needed to wait for the Pope to pronounce on the best way forward, or consulted their Bibles, or even phoned up the Parish priest or waited for the national Bishop to speak. Most wouldn’t have needed to pray waiting for divine inspiration, and rightly so. Most will have come to the conclusion using their own reason, intuition and judgement that to bomb Syria would be counter-productive and morally dubious, or that it would be regrettable but necessary to save lives. Or indeed that they thoughtfully withhold judgement unless and until they know more to make an informed decision. They wouldn’t have needed to read up on just war theory but their reason and judgement would very likely be informed by just war theory even if they hadn’t read it, just as most opponent’s opprobrium of the invasion of Iraq could also be traced back to just war theory and the attempts to defend that war by the least Catholic of politicians was an attempt to explain why it was the least worst option according to a a just war paradigm.
To put it in simpler terms when in the British dark comedy Four Lions the self confessed ‘thick as fudge’ Waj is doubting the legitimacy of blowing up himself along with unbelievers. His friend Omar responds ‘Don’t listen to your brain bro, listen to your heart. What does your heart say bro?’ The telling response is: ‘It’s wrong bro, don’t do it!’.
This character, written by the brilliant and exceptional satirist Chris Morris, (educated at Jesuit boarding school) has actually arrived at a reasoned, logical and intuitive response informed by his Islamic faith with what the great Judaic tradition teaches about the heart namely that it is a unity between head and heart.
The results from this YouGov poll on religion (as with so many others) can be used to show, yes how little religious people differ in their approach to life from those who claim no religion, but also show how much, despite the secularist agenda, that this is because of our as yet-to-be entirely abandoned religious traditions.