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Faith with attitude

29 September 2017


THE most recent British Attitudes Survey tells us that 51 per cent of people in the UK are of no religion. But then, countless polls and surveys told us that Hillary Clinton would win last year, and that Theresa May was going to cruise through this year. So why should we believe polls about religious faith, when political polls are so unreliable?

Professor Robert Wuthnow, inter­viewed as part of Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week), says that polling on religion tends not to measure categories of belief so much as define them. In the United States, on which his research is focused, getting a hold on the beliefs of Evangelical voters is a central preoccupation of pollsters. But, Wuthnow says, the process serves only to con­tribute to a feedback loop of cat­egorisation and self-identification.

The only questions worth asking, Andrew Graystone, of the Church Media Network, says, are the ones that you ask of your God at three in the morning. Religious polling is be­­coming increasingly ludicrous; soon we will be getting headlines such as “Answered prayer up 15%!” and “Acts of spontaneous kindness at a 30-year low!”

But pollsters were misunder-stood, Katie Harrison, from the Faith Unit at ComRes, replied. There was much in religious polling that was misreported by lazy journalists — al­­though, since many of these polls are commissioned by lazy journalists, it is hard to feel sympathetic.

Yet there are ways to corroborate at least some aspects of religious surveys: one is to count bums on pews. To that extent, they are less like the predictive polls of political campaigning and more like polls conducted at the end of it all, which have, in recent years, proved eerily accurate. It seems appropriate that those who cherish religious belief might regard the British Attitudes Survey as an exit poll.

If church attendance is dwindling, the desire to sing religious music ap­­pears to be on an ever-ascending tra­jectory. It is said that you are never more than 15 miles in Britain from a choir of some description; and, in A Choral History of Britain (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), Roderick Williams is charting our nation’s mu­­sical passion.

This promises to be an engaging series. Williams, a fine baritone and composer, is also a knowledgeable presenter, happy to immerse himself in a vast choir of amateurs for a performance of Mahler’s gargantuan Second Symphony.

The first programme, however, was a curious attempt to graft to­­gether two themes, one being hum­anity’s evolutionary relationship with singing, and the other, our own island’s history. It was like starting a history of the English-speaking peoples with an account of the forma­­tion of the earth’s crust.

The only man foolhardy enough to make the connection was the philosopher, musicologist, and Brexiteer Roger Scruton. The tradition of sing­ing in four-part harmony, apparently, speaks to a primordial sense of nationhood. It takes a particular genius to recruit to the cause of patriotic chauvinism the laws of music theory.

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