Thursday, 20 December 2012

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Christianity in Decline?

Census 2011 – Christianity in Decline?

Tucked away under a headline on The Rise of Foreign Born Residents, you might have noticed that the 2011 census statistics on religion have been published today, and they appear to show a marked decline in the Christian population of England and Wales.
Christianity remains the largest religion, with 33.2 million people (59.3 per cent of the population), but this represents a marked drop compared to the previous census, in which 71.7% of the population of England and Wales self-identified as Christian.

A quarter of the population (25.1%) now self-identify as having no religion, compared to 14.8% of the population in 2001.  
Non-Christian religious groups have grown, most likely due to a rise in immigration since the last census. Islam remains the largest non-Christian religious group, the 2.7 million Muslims now making up 4.8% of the population, compared to 3% in 2001

No doubt the findings will be taken up by proponents of secularism and secularisation as evidence that religion is of declining importance in the UK, while I daresay some Daily Mail columnist or other will be wringing their hands about the growth of Islam in tomorrow's paper.
As with all statistics on religion, the findings need to be interpreted with some caution. The census is measuring religious self-identification, not belief in God, active religious participation in religion, or any other measure that might give us a clearer understanding of the changing place of religion in modern Britain.

For example, I wonder whether the decline in the Christian population reflects a substantive change in the past decade, or whether there is more going on behind the figures. In a post 9/11 world, where religion is frequently portrayed as a cause of war or terrorism, perhaps some people are reluctant to self-identify as religion, or at least no longer feel a moral obligation to declare an affiliation with a religion they do not practice?
The British Humanist Association also ran a series of adverts calling for people to tick "No Religion" in the census, so the rise in the non-religious population may reflect the success of that campaign.
Interestingly, Norwich turns out to be a hotbed of godlessness with 42.5 % of the city’s population reporting that they have no religion – the highest proportion in the country.

More on the census results here and here.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Thought Experiment #1: The Runaway Trolley Car


Thought experiments are used in philosophy and ethics, philosophy, and even science as a way of clarifying and testing concepts and theories. For example, ethicists can use thought experiments to present a hypothetical dilemma, and examine the most “intuitive” response, drawing out implications for ethical issues in the real-world.

I thought (no pun intended) it might be fun to blog some well-known thought experiments, hopefully as part of an occasional series. As well as examining your own ethical reasoning processes, thought experiments are also useful as a revision exercise: you use them to test out and evaluate the ethical theories you are studying in your A level.

 One of the most famous thought experiments is The Runaway Trolley Car. It works like this:

A runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track. In its path are five people who will definitely be killed unless you, a bystander, flip a switch which will divert it on to another track, where it will kill one person. Should you flip the switch?
So have a think – what would you do?

Our second thought experiment develops this scenario a little. It’s called The Fat Man and the Trolley Car.

The runaway trolley car is hurtling down a track where it will kill five people. You are standing on a bridge above the track and, aware of the imminent disaster, you decide to jump on the track to block the trolley car. Although you will die, the five people will be saved.

Just before your leap, you realise that you are too light to stop the trolley. Next to you, a fat man is standing on the very edge of the bridge. He would certainly block the trolley, although he would undoubtedly die from the impact. A small nudge and he would fall right onto the track below. No one would ever know. Should you push him?
Again - have a think – what would you do?

Were your answers to the two scenarios different? If so, you’re not alone. In a survey conducted by the BBC, roughly 75% of respondents said they would flip the switch in the first scenario, versus 25% who said they would not. However, in the second scenario, these proportions were pretty much reversed: 27% said that they would push the fat man, while 73% said they would not.

Given that the moral dilemma is, at least on one level, exactly the same (either one person dies or 5 people die), comparing these two thought experiments raises some interesting questions about how we make moral choices and how (in)consistent our ethical decision-making processes are.

Questions to consider:

1) Most people understand that the issue in both thought experiments is the same (1 person dies or 5 people die), so why do you think that the response to the two scenarios varies so much?

2) Think about two of the ethical theories you’ve studied. If you apply the principles of these theories, which is the “correct” ethical response in each scenario? What might that tell you about your ethical theories and how useful they are in making ethical decisions?

3) When I’ve tried these thought experiments with GCSE and A level students, I find it’s very common for students to try to justify their decision by allocating some sort of blame which is not an explicit feature of the scenario (e.g. “it’s the people’s fault for being on the track”, “it’s the man’s fault for being fat”, “if the man was on the edge of the bridge, he was probably suicidal anyway”). What might these justifications tell us about the way we make ethical decisions?   

4) Do the issues raised by the two thought experiments have any implications for any real-life ethical issues?


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Jumping on the Bandwagon

The Pope now is Tweeting. I don't know, you set up one little Religous Studies Facebook Group and suddenly everybody's doing the social media thing...

Sunday, 2 December 2012

First Sikh Guards Buckingham Palace in Turban

A solider who is the first Sikh to join the Grenadier Guards features in today’s Mail on Sunday after wearing his turban rather than the Guards’ famous bearskin. According to the Mail, Jatinderpal Singh Bhullar has been given permission to wear a turban while on guard duty outside Buckingham palace.

The British army allows the 25 or so Sikhs currently serving to keep their turbans, except where a hard helmet is required for safety reasons. You can read a little more about Sikh and Muslim soldiers in the British army here.

In a religiously diverse modern Britain, should the Army make allowances for the different faiths of its soldiers? Or should those who volunteer to join up put Queen and country before their religion?