Saturday 30 March 2013

Church of England demonstrates how not to do statistics

While I'm complaining about my church - see post below - I do take exception to the church behaving like the BBC or the Daily Telegraph when it comes to writing a story*. This headline Four out of five believe in the power of prayer has nothing to do with the story. The question that was asked, on which the responses were based, was "Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?"  That little word "if" is a dead giveaway. The press release has been taken apart by Thinking Anglicans (there are some) among others. I am merely adding my two pennyworth for the delectation of my sociology students, who I am always trying to teach how to use statistics wisely.

*I was compiling a list of articles where the headline did not reflect the truth as outlined in the story. But the list got too long. The BBC and the DT are both serial offenders in this regard, though by no means the only ones.

Am I persecuted? Am I heck.

George Carey, ex-archbishop for somewhere in outer space, has been at  it again. He claims that Christians are being and feel persecuted. Speaking as an Anglican, I would like to reassure all of my friends, religious and non-religious, that I do not feel persecuted in any way. Occasionally, I have to mind my manners. Gosh, what a burden that is.

Carey speaks from a position of enormous privilege. He is a member of the House of Lords, and speaks there on behalf of all those Christians who he says feel persecuted - no other religion has that privilege. If he wants to think about persecution, he might reflect on the fact that he, as a man, gets to wear a dress without being insulted or assaulted for it.

He speaks from the delusion that this country is a majority Christian country. The BBC,  reporting David Cameron's Easter message, has a statistic that 72% of the country self-identify as Christian. The BBC, as well as the ex-archbishop, really need to learn that using Christian as a cultural label is a very different thing from being a Christian. Tomorrow is Easter Day, the biggest feast in the Christian year. That means that around 4% of the population will go to church, instead of the usual 3%. For the rest of the 72%, Easter means a roast dinner, time with the family, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Easter, for the 68 or 69% who aren't in church, is a retail festival, a festival of consumption, precisely the opposite of what the Bible is about. Don't get me wrong, real Christians are not going round with long faces looking for the sackcloth and ashes on Easter Day. We are celebrating good and proper. But we do it without adding to the waistline, and without adding to the mountain of refuse left over after all the eggs have been opened.

Perhaps church going as such is a bad descriptor of real Christianity.many people practise the Christian virtues without going to church regularly or at all. But to be a Christian does mean to have some kind of relationship with Jesus. There are many good people about who do not have that relationship. They are no less good for it. They are probably better than me. But they do not count as Christians. Jesus calls us to do something. I can't help thinking that if Carey were being a proper Christian, he would stop trying to retain privilege for the privileged, and would start doing something about these people, or these people, or  this man, or this man, or these people. Plenty to choose from, as you can see. And I think Jesus might actually approve.

There is a curious issue about Carey's evidence. He cites a Comres poll carried out apparently for the Coalition for Marriage, which purports to show that two thirds of Christians think they are part of a persecuted minority. There is no trace of this poll on either the Comres site, or Coalition for Marriage. If it appears, I shall update. In the meantime, I wonder if he is slightly confused and has mistaken it for a survey, also carried out by Comres, which suggested that two thirds of Christians think the church needs a new image. We could do without Carey's  unique brand of publicising for a start.

As Paul Walter has pointed out, the survey is available on the Comres site. Having had a look through it, it strikes me as one of the less convincing and rigorous surveys I have ever read. The sample of 535 people is heavily weighted towards older people and towards Conservative voters. The questions are also the kind that effectively tell the respondent what to think. Most of them are about Christianity as such, not about religions in general. One of the questions, for instance, is to agree or disagree with the statement "I feel the Government gives sufficient protection to the rights of Christians to exercise their freedom of religious expression". There is an implicit invitation to compare the position of Christians with other religions, rather than asking the question "I feel the Government gives sufficient protection to the rights of religious people to exercise their freedom of religious expression".

And there is a question about feeling like a persecuted minority. It is this - to agree or disagree with the statement "I sometimes or often feel a member of a persecuted minority because of the constraints on religious expression in this country". It is inviting the answer yes. if this was a level one student's attempt at writing a survey, it would fail. I have no doubt that there are 359 people who feel like that. I doubt that you can safely extrapolate that figure to the entire country. I also pray to God to open their eyes to the real truth of their power vis a vis other religions.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Reform Club

Not many serving government ministers get to release their own rock album.

Norman Baker and The Reform Club

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Roger Mahoney

Cardinal Roger Mahoney is at the moment in Rome helping to choose the new Pope. His diocese today has come to a settlement worth nearly £10 million with victims of a priest who abused them. The priest, Michael Baker, was shielded by Mahoney, and permitted to abuse again after his first offences came to light. Documentary evidence has made clear that Mahoney shielded many people and covered up many instances of child abuse during his 25 years as archbishop.

The Catholic church claims to be repentant, claims to feel genuine remorse over the misery suffered by victims of the many priests who have abused them. The fact that Mahoney is still a cardinal is proof enough that those claims are hollow. The fact that he is in Rome, among those choosing the new Pope is unforgiveable.

The church is hiding behind the fact that their rules require him to be there. If they were really serious, really repentant about what they have allowed to happen, they would have changed the rules to ensure that he, and others like him, had no part in this transition. His presence there convicts the Catholic authorities of hypocrisy, and of a meanness of spirit that shows that there is no soul left at the top of the Catholic church.

Friday 1 March 2013

Lessons from Eastleigh: nothing we didn't know already

The by-election at Eastleigh provides a much needed fillip to the LibDems in general and to Nick Clegg in particular after a nasty few weeks. But it tells us nothing new about the state of politics in the UK.

We know that where we work we win. We have worked ceaselessly in Eastleigh over the last couple of decades and built an excellent local party that has delivered when it mattered. We also worked tirelessly during the campaign itself. We are very good at ground wars, and this was a particular case of a good ground war. It was not a surprise that we won.

It would also not have been a surprise if the Conservatives had won. Reasons they did not – they chose a candidate who they needed to keep out of the media spotlight, and their choice backfired on them. It was also clear that they let slip their attack dogs, and some very unpleasant things were said about the Liberal Democrats during the campaign. When people vote for the current Tory party, they know they are voting for a nasty party. A lot of them did, and a lot of them will do in a general election, but not enough will. The lesson for the Tories, if they will heed it, is that slipping to the right does not help their vote. But we knew that already.

UKIP did very well indeed. But a significant proportion of their vote was not a vote for UKIP, it was a “none of the above” vote. (The LibDems won despite no longer getting the “none of the above” vote. That may be a surprise to some people, but LibDems already knew that for some time people have been voting for us not against somebody else.) UKIP's fortunes in this by-election were tied to Labour's. The Labour vote collapsed partly because their choice of candidate backfired but mostly because people still don't have a reason to vote Labour. They do not look like a party ready to form a government. It's only two years to the next general election so they need to move soon. They need to say sooner rather than later, “We made a lot of mistakes, especially near the end of our time in office. We will not make those mistakes again. But the Tories, despite the lessons of our time in office, are continuing to make those mistakes”. But they are still too terrified of the right wing press to make that move. If they don't make it soon, they will not win the next election. In the absence of that move, people who are not loyal Labour voters have no reason to vote for them.

In the absence of a real alternative in Labour, voters went to UKIP. I don't believe it was because they liked UKIP's policies. Those policies are superficially popular. When they come to be properly tested in the heat of a general election, or indeed a (unnecessary) referendum, support will melt. The support went to UKIP as a protest vote. Perhaps by the time of the 2015 general election, Farage will have achieved the momentum of the other comedian Beppo Grillo. It is likely that the internal tensions between sensible Conservatives and their right wing will get worse. It is possible that the Tories will spend more energy fighting each other than fighting the other parties, and it is possible that UKIP will profit from that.

Much of the future is unpredictable – there is a balancing act involving Labour's ability to look as if it is capable of governing, the internal tensions of the Conservative party, and UKIP's ability to continue to mobilise a none of the above vote, and not to implode in its own personal and political contradictions.

But we knew all that before the Eastleigh by-election.