Lies, damn lies and religion

There’s an article in today’s Times about the rapid decline in church attendance in the UK. The particular angle they’ve chosen to take is that within a mere 30 years, the number of people going to mosque every weekend will outnumber those going to church. This is illustrated by a dramatic graph with the Christian line sweeping down at a vertiginous angle and crossing the lines for Muslims and Hindus, which are creeping up a bit slower at the bottom.*

Leaving aside the huge uncertainties involved in extrapolating the trends forward, I can’t help feeling that the graph is missing something important: a line for the vast majority of us who don’t go to any kind of religious service. If they had included us, and changed the scale of the y-axis to accommodate us, all the religious people would be squashed down into a very flat and unimpressive bit at the bottom of the chart.

Of course it’s an interesting and significant demographic shift if the number of churchgoers changes from about 8% to 1% in 45 years, as the graph suggests. But if you say instead that the number of people who don’t go to church/mosque/temple regularly is rising from 90% to 94%, it doesn’t seem quite so dramatic.

As regular readers will know, I’m not about to lose sleep over shrinking congregations; and I certainly don’t believe there’s some kind of essential connection between Britishness and Christianity. But I was mainly annoyed by the use of statistics.

*The graph isn’t available online or I’d link to it. The Times’s consistent habit of having less in the way of pictures and graphics online than in the dead tree edition always seems to be completely missing the point, to me, but hey-ho.


Ospreys, monogamy and stupidity

There’s an exceptionally stupid article by Magnus Linklater in the Times today. He talks about the recovery of the British osprey population over the past 50 years with reference to their apparent monogamy and long-term pair bonds. The article ends:

What the osprey demonstrates is that, whatever indiscretions may be committed in the course of a relationship, a stable family background is ultimately the best guarantee that the species will prosper. It works for ospreys. It probably works for humans too.

So why is this exceptionally stupid? Well, it seems like almost too obvious to have to say, but: we are not ospreys.

And all you have to do is choose a different species and it enables you to draw a completely different lesson. Like for example that other fine Scottish bird, the capercaillie, which teaches us that the recipe for a successful species is for all the men to gather together and fight over the best spots to dance and sing in front of the women, with a handful of the strongest, funkiest and loudest men fathering children on all of them. Or perhaps we should learn from the herring, and millions and millions of us all gather together once a year and have a vast mass orgy.

By all means argue for monogamy: just don’t drag the ospreys into it.

» Ospreys mating was posted to Flickr by allspice1 and is used under a CC by-nd licence.