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Church shield

Dear old Dickie Dawkins has said something silly again – this time at the Cheltenham Science Festival. As well the usual religion-bashing, he reportedly claimed that fairy tales (by which he really did mean actual fairy tales) are harmful to children because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism.”

Professor Dawkins isn’t the only British TV scientist to have made headlines at a recent festival. Last week, it was the turn of the geneticist Steve Jones, who though also a prominent atheist, has more nuanced views on religion.

As Sarah Knapton reports for the Telegraph, Professor Jones argues that demographic trends are pushing the world towards an increasingly religious future:

“…in increasingly atheist countries in Europe people are no longer reproducing in sufficient numbers to avoid population decline, he told the Hay Literary Festival.

“‘Britain is the only country in Europe that’s replacing its population,’ said Prof Jones.

“‘We atheists sometimes congratulate ourselves that the incidence of religious belief is going down.

“‘But religious people have more children. Where are people having the most children? It’s in the tropics and in Africa.

“‘It’s clearly the case that the future will involve an increase in religious populations and a decrease in scepticism.

“‘We may not need more scientists but more theologists.’”

But don’t religious populations become increasingly secular over time? Not necessarily. For instance, the Amish population in North America is doubling every twenty years or so. In the 1920s there were just a few thousand of them. There are now more than 250,000, a number which is set to top a million by the middle of the century. Some of them quit, of course, but the great majority stay within the fold.

Though coming from secular liberal viewpoint, Jones has this to say about the influence of Christianity:

“‘It’s very easy to be sarcastic about religion,’ he said, ‘But many think that the New Testament is the finest political document ever written and you would be pushed to argue with that.

“‘Our entire society is based on tenets of the New Testament.’”

Indeed, if large parts of the West continue to drift away from our Christian roots, then the results might be rather unexpected.

The secular left has long-demonised the religious right as the ultimate enemy of all they hold dear, but maybe it’s the irreligious right they should really fear. Consider the long-term decline in support for the welfare state  – especially among the young. Could it be that our increasingly secular society, while more tolerant, is less compassionate?

A few years ago a survey of charitable giving in the United States found that religious conservatives gave the most to charity, followed by religious liberals, then secular liberals and finally secular conservatives. Meanwhile, in Britain, the movement to put social justice back at the heart of the conservative message is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, Christian and Jewish in its affiliations.

Of course, one mustn’t over-generalise. Speaking from personal experience I’ve met compassionate Conservative atheists and flinty-hearted Tory god-botherers.

Nevertheless, a more secular right would probably be less sentimental – and certainly more libertarian –  in its social outlook. Furthermore, this is likely to find favour with certain voters.

After all, when money’s too tight to mention and God is far from our minds, we shouldn’t be surprised if politics takes a Darwinian turn.

9 comments for: Heresy of the week: It’s the irreligious right that secular liberals should worry about

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