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Religion and Violence: an editorial interlude

Religion and Violence: an editorial interlude

Part 4 of our Religion and Violence blog series, Nick Spencer reveals the debate behind the press release of our latest report 23/07/18

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This is part of a series of blogs on the relationship between religion and violence from Theos. The series also marks the launch of the new Theos report ‘Killing in the Name of God: Addressing Religiously Inspired Violence’. All authors are expressing their personal views on the subject rather than necessarily the views of Theos.


In the spirit of all those “Behind the News” programmes that lift the lid on the nefarious goings on in some of the world’s great newsrooms, here’s a little vignette of an editorial discussion at Theos last week.

Talking about religion and violence, and specifically our recent polling on the topic to launch Robin Gill’s report into the subject, we were faced with a dilemma. The polling had revealed a mixed bag when it came to public opinion. You can read more of this in my blog.

I penned a press release for the data which we wanted to launch formally alongside the report last week, teasing out some of these complexities. One of my colleagues then pointed out that there was only one statistic in it that the media would be interested in – that around half of the population think the world would be a more peaceful place if no–one was religious – and that if we didn’t lead with that, it would look as if we were simply hiding the nasty facts in among the others.

And it is a nasty fact, at least for people like us who spend our working lives trying to persuade people that religion and faith are not moral catastrophes and that Christianity really is worth thinking seriously about. “Half of Brits think the world would be more peaceful if no–one was religious” is precisely the kind of press release we would expect from our friends at one of the national secular campaign groups. It’s the kind of headline they love, proving (as it doesn’t) that religion is a “Bad Thing” without which we would all be far better off.

Years ago, around the time of our launch, we did a bit of polling on the back of Richard Dawkins’ rather chilling metaphor, asking people whether they agreed with the great atheist that religion was like “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eliminate”. We were upset to find that 42% agreed and 44% disagreed – not a recipe for a happy future for religion (or us). Not surprisingly, atheist humanists loved it: “Theos poll gives hope to humanists”, as the then BHA headlined it. It’s all just a little bit of history repeating…

So: do we just forget about the religion and violence press release altogether, or pen one that tries to capture the complexity of this complex issue, or simply bite the bullet (to use a somewhat inapt metaphor given its probable origins) and run with the headline that would be extracted in any case, even though it spoke against everything we try to do here.

Cue: animated discussion, extreme histrionics, hurled coffee mugs, threats of resignation. Well, perhaps not. Theos isn’t quite The Washington Post. But we did wonder what we should do.

In the end, as you may have seen, we took option three and, no surprise (and no blame) that was how the report and polling was covered here and here and here.

We judged, on balance, that it is better to be honest even if the results undermine what you are trying to say, than it is to polish a turd – as Boris Johnson might say it – or to pretend there wasn’t even one there in the first place.

That may be a naïve decision, but there we go. In a polarised debate, a little painful honesty may not be the worst thing that can happen.

 Image by Michael Gaida available under a Creative Commons license.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Director of Research at Theos. Nick is an acclaimed author of books and reports, most recently The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 23 July 2018

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