Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Anglican Rapid Rebuttal Unit

According to an article in the Graun, a study has concluded that "People of no religion outnumber Christians in England and Wales." So far, so unsurprising.

What was quite interesting was this prompt response from one of the Church of England's Spin Doctors of Divinity:
A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “The increase in those identifying as ‘no faith’ reflects a growing plurality in society rather than any increase in secularism or humanism. We do not have an increasingly secular society as much as a more agnostic one."
Like the Labour Party's pre-election Rapid Rebuttal Unit, the C of E's PR people were eager to get their response out there. The problem in this case, it seems to me, was the content, not the rapidity.

The conclusion of the study was clear and quite simple to grasp - overall, Christianity is declining in England and Wales and levels of unbelief are going up. But the Church of England's response was obscure and confusing. The difference between a secular society and an agnostic one might be clear to the person who prepared the C of E's response, but it isn't clear to me and I don't suppose it is to most people. For all practical purposes, these two types of society sound pretty much interchangeable. This is how the National Secular Society defines secularism:
Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
As for agnosticism, well, it comes in all sorts of flavours, agnostic atheism, agnostic theism, total agnosticism and, my personal favourite, ignosticism. The one thing all of these outlooks have in common is an emphasis on uncertainty and a rejection of one-size-fits-all dogma. So it's hard to imagine an "agnostic society" that wouldn't necessarily be a secular one, in favour of stuff like freedom of thought and against ideas like privileging one belief system above all others (see "secularism" above).

Or was the Anglican spokesperson saying that the individual unbelievers who've apparently tipped the balance against Christianity are mostly agnostics, rather than atheists?  If so, did she or he have any figures, or other evidence, to support this belief? Or did it just feel like there had to be some way to argue that the unwelcome thing that looked as if it was increasing wasn't really increasing?

It looks to me as if the C of E spokesperson knew that the evidence for growing secularisation was unanswerable and was just trying to muddy the waters by creating a distracting distinction without a difference.

If only Labour's original Rapid Rebuttal Unit had the excuse that they were struggling to make a weak case against overwhelming evidence. Speaking as a broadly sympathetic non-party member, I'm astonished at the sheer brass neck of the Labour old guard, carping on about how Corbyn isn't getting a message out to the voters.

I seem to remember that when these people were in positions of power through five years of Con-Dem coalition, they had a Rapid Rebuttal Unit on tap and they had a strong, easy to understand, overwhelmingly-evidenced case to make. Namely, that the Global Financial Crisis was caused by the failure of those financial institutions which were in all the headlines when the government stepped in to bail them out on our behalf, while the Conservative counter-claim that everything was Gordon Brown's fault for overpaying nurses and librarians and that Lehman Brothers, RBS and the rest were just innocent bystanders, was obvious hogwash.

But despite their self-proclaimed political savvy, they failed to make anything of that case until the closing weeks of the election campaign, by which time the Conservatives' ridiculous hogwash had gone unchallenged for so long that it had assumed the status of a fact that most people believe in, despite the lack of evidence. That was bad enough, but you could taste the defeat when you listened to them literally begging to be forgiven for the original sin of overspending .

It's easy to mock the Anglicans' feeble attempt at rapid rebuttal, but at least it was rapid, if confused. It's harder to forgive the negligence of people with a far stronger case to make, who should have known better, but left their rebuttal far too late and made almost as big a hash of it. If the Labour old guard had made their case better, believers in the doctrine of austerity might be dwindling even more rapidly than the Anglicans.