If It's There, I'll Give You The Money Myself.

Theos are happy. They’ve done a load of research and concluded that:

More than a third of Britons believe that the virgin birth really happened, according to new research published today by Theos, the public theology think tank. In the poll of over a thousand adults, undertaken for Theos by ComRes, 34% of people agreed that the statement "Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary" was historically accurate. Only 32% considered it fictional.

This is from their own website. It’s a bit of a worry then that they feel the need to refer to themselves as “Theos, the public theology think tank”. Presumably they intend for journalists to copy and paste this description into their articles (because apparently that’s what journalists do now) and only by restraint and professional pride managed to resist calling themselves “Theos, those handsome bastards, they”. They link to a PDF of the actual survey data, PDF being the most unhelpful format they could think of in which to store a table of numerical data other than perhaps an MP3.

The survey asked respondants to rate the following statements as historical fact, fiction, or ‘not sure’: “Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary”, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem”, “Angels visited shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus” and “Herod wanted to kill Jesus, so he ordered the death of infant boys”. Then it asked if they agreed with these: “The birth of Jesus is significant to me personally”, “The birth of Jesus remains significant culturally”, “I will be attending a Christmas church service this year” and “I do not celebrate Christmas as a religious festival”. They’ve drawn a couple of odd conclusions, just because they habitually forget that there is a difference between ‘religious’ and ‘Christian’. But basically, they say, a large number of people believe in the whole pack of lies that is the conventional nativity story.

Now, far be it for me to suggest that their survey is in any way not totally reliable, but according to their data, 38% of Jews – more than in the general population – believe in the virgin birth, 49% of Jews believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem, 38% of Jews plan to attend a Christmas church service, and 43% of Jews and 36% of people of no religion disagree with the statement “I do not celebrate Christmas as a religious festival”. I am reminded of the survey that said 21% of American atheists believe in a god. These surveys are nonsense, surely?

Now I should mention that their survey contained only seven Jews, so the margin of error on these numbers is wide open, but sampling noise can’t turn zero into a finite number.

The idea that a third of people in this country believe in the virgin birth sounds pretty reasonable to me, but I’m not sure I can trust it when it came from a survey that said that Jews and atheists celebrate Christmas as a religious festival. At some stage in that survey, something went wrong. Until I know what it is and can account for it when interpreting the results, it’s pretty hard to accept these surveys as evidence of anything.