British Humanist Association follies

I never expect much of The British Humanist Association (BHA), but their opinion poll– well, it almost defies belief in its absurdity. It’s difficult to know where to start with it.

Well, first consider this:

Humanist outlook on life is calculated as those choosing the following three statements:

  • Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe
  • Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong
  • What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world


First, there are many religious people who would accept that “Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe” – they would simply dispute what this tells us, if anything, about origins, etc.

Second, “Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong”: I can just about make sense of this proposition (though it seems to make redundant a lot of philosophising about ethics – which might be a good thing, coming to think of it), but (a) it is quite possible to be a humanist and think this is nonsense; and (b) it is quite possible to be religious, and think that something like this might be true (if, for example, God has given us such an ability).

Third, “What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world” – So you’ve got to be some kind of consequentialist to be a humanist (nb. It might appear here that I’m confusing IF and IFF, but actually not so much if you look at how the question is posed and the analysis constructed)? Hilarious.

Okay, so all this is bad enough. But now have a look at how the questions were posed.

I am going to read out some pairs of statements to you. I’d like you to tell me on balance which one in each pair most closely matches your view.

And then, for example:

Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe


Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe

My background is in sociology, you know, and I look at this stuff – and frankly it’s horrifying. The questions are pitched as a forced choice, but they are not in any sense mutually exclusive (certainly not in terms of how they will be taken). In the UK, at least, you’re going to catch a lot of religious people in the first category. It’s no good then claiming – ah, these people think science is the best way to understand the universe, they’re really humanist. That’s just an argument by redefinition. A humanist becomes a person who thinks science is the best to understand the universe. Well I think that, and I’m not a humanist.

Also, look at the instructions more carefully:

 Where respondents were unsure, interviewers were allowed to select “Neither” or “Don’t know”, but these options were not presented to respondents and they were encouraged to choose a statement from each set if they could.

That’s ridiculous. You can’t encourage people to answer forced choice questions, and then claim that their answers genuinely represent their opinions (TPM Online interactive activities notwithstanding). You’ll end up with what are called “doorstep opinions” (see, for example: Schuman, H. and Presser, S., “The open and closed question”, American Sociological Review, (1979), 44 692-712).

I could go on, but I won’t. This whole polling exercise was frankly a disaster, and the BHA, should have been embarrassed about it all.

Edit: For a response to my critics, go here.

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  1. They fail Polling 101, if you ask me. At that rate they’ll have Dewey winning the election again.

  2. Devin Carpenter

    I generally agree with your criticisms with one minor caveat. Although the questions are obviously rigged, the amount of people who identified themselves with the vague, humanist principles is pretty high; it certainly is higher than the amount of people who would actually identify themselves as “non-religious,” atheist, agnostic, free-thinking etc. But couldn’t this suggest something other than mere bad polling? Couldn’t it suggest that the public is ignorant of their own position when it comes to more complicated philosophical viewpoints; and that if they were introduced and schooled in them, they might find that they are a humanist (or atheist/agnostic etc.)? Or am I reaching with this thought?

  3. The defence would, I’d guess, be that this is a PR exercise and that playing a little fast and loose with rigour is necessary if you are to get people’s attention and make them think further.
    The awkward question this raises is: since humanists think of themsleves as guardians of truth and rationality, is it consistent with those principles to put out a disingenuous set of poll findings? The worry is either that (a) they don;t realise how shoddy the survey was and hence are not the paragons of reason they believe themsleves to be or (b) they do realise how shoddy they are, and ditto.
    To declare an interest, I’m a “distinguihsed supporter” of the BHA. Despite the poll , we need them, we really do!

  4. They need to sort out their grammar, too:

    I’d like you to tell me on balance which one in each pair most closely matches your view

    The most of two?

  5. Couldn’t it suggest that the public is ignorant of their own position when it comes to more complicated philosophical viewpoints

    The trouble with this idea is that it kind of relies on the thought that people have something approaching a vaguely coherent position on these sorts of subjects.* However, there’s plenty of evidence that actually they do not (for political ideas see, for example, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics”, by Philip Conserve in David Apter’s Ideology and Discontent.).

  6. Some really good advice for the BHA: Go learn some statistics. I’m genuinely horrified that such can actually be published as an opinion poll. I mean, who’s going to believe opinion polls ever again? No pun intended.

  7. For the record, in the face of this unforgiving onslaught of abuse against an unassuming opinion poll, only just brought to our attention, the BHA commissioned this poll because of the recurring difficulty we find ourselves in when trying to establish our locus standi at meetings with officials and ministers who ask for our membership. Humanists do not have to and generally do not join an organisation, but we all know they are numerous. But it is no good having a poll asking ‘are you a humanist?’ because the word is not known or often regarded with some suspicion even if heard of.

    Moreover, we constantly have quoted against us the 2001 Census result that claims that 72% of the population is Christian. Now if you want to get on your high horse about anything, have a go at that ludicrous result from a rigged question (“what is your religion?”) asked immediately after questions about ethnicity, by an official body whose results are used in policy making and are even now contributing to the Government’s plans to delegate large chunks of welfare service delivery to religious organisations. And at the Office of National Statistics which is proposing to ask exactly the same question again in 2011.

    Meantime, even without any pretensions to being serious sociological research (on a budget of £5,000?), the poll is surely indicative: religious people who reject both the option of saying that ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’ and the option of saying that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’ have at most a pretty attenuated sort of religion, and policy should not be made by Government or anyone on the basis that at heart such people are religious: the point which was the whole motivation for the poll.

    So, less of this ivory tower disdain, please, for the honest labours of those who are trying to defend the secular principle in the face of sustained attack by the most religious government for over 100 years in alliance with religious entrepreneurs like Bob Edmiston, Peter Vardy and Steve Chalke who are turning or planning to turn public services – education, employment etc – into promotion opportunities for religion of – often – the most backward kind, and by archbishops and bishops decrying generally invented manifestations of so-called aggressive atheism (i.e., free thinking about religion). In the real world of politics you cannot always be academically nice – your opponents will make mincemeat of you if you try – and whereas a thoughtful note about the limitations of a poll of this kind would perhaps be in place, mockery like

    never expect much
    almost defies belief in its absurdity
    bad enough
    frankly a disaster
    should have been embarrassed
    obviously rigged
    playing fast and loose
    genuinely horrified

    is simply not justified.

    Frankly, I never expect much of philosophers but this time I am genuinely horrified. It is bad enough when they play fast and loose with disingenuously academic over-interpretation of everyday statements, but in this case they should be embarrassed by misplaced criticism that almost defies belief in its absurdity. It could be seen as hilarious if it were not, frankly, a disaster that such shoddy behaviour should seek to undermine the proposition that the attitudes of society are basically humanist, not religious. In other forums, such a farrago of nonsense might seem obviously rigged, but here I suspect it is simply a poor sense of priorities.

  8. I never expect much of philosophers

    Me neither. But then I’m a sociologist.

    The £5000.00 thing is disingenuous. I’d have helped you put together a decent poll for no money, and I’m sure you could easily have found other sociologists also willing to help.

    I’ll respond properly later.

  9. David, I’m with you on the ferocity of some of these attacks, but really, don’t you have to at least concede that it is not a good reflection of a body that promotes rationality and reason to make the kinds of claims the BHA has done about what this research means? “17 million humanists in Britain!” the website now says, on the basis of this poll. I said something in my comment about how you can excuse a certain amount of the hyperbole as the necessities of PR, but for me the question I’d like you to answer is: how can you both claim to stand up for reason and rationality, while at the same time making such unsubstantiated claims?
    Your tu quoque against people who claim we are 71% Christian only digs the hole deeper: if it’s not on for them to make exaggerated claims on the base of dubious statistics, surely it’s not on for humanists to do the same?

  10. Julian –

    What do you expect the website headline to say? “360 people in roughly random sample choose broadly humanist options in somewhat crude opinion poll”? The details of the questions and polling are all given, the claim is that the 36% “are in fact humanists in their basic outlook” and the final summing up by the Chief Executive concludes: “These people may not belong to the Humanist Association, may not have even heard of Humanism, but they share our attitudes and we speak for them in our campaigns.” I don’t resile from any of that.

    People are humanists by virtue of having an outlook and approach to problems that lies within a fairly broad range. The three questions were in opinion poll terms a fair stab at the essentials and were of course a compromise between what we started with and what MORI advised would actually be understood. If anything, the results will have favoured the ‘non-humanist’ answers, since the two questions with a specifically religious option were framed to encourage anyone who thought religion had any contribution at all to make to understanding the universe or to morality to choose that option.

    The answers were fully reported, which is far more than with most opinion polls commissioned to promote a viewpoint (e.g. the Theos poll last autumn). If there was any hyperbole, it was well within the licence given by your ‘certain amount’. I see nothing irrational or unreasonable in any of this – as long as you don’t take it as academic research, which we never claimed it to be.

    Non, ne rien . . . (but thanks for the sympathy over ferocity!)

  11. David,

    “What do you expect the website headline to say?”

    The problem with that question is that the problems didn’t start with the reporting, but with the exercise.

    But even putting aside that, the headline could have more intellectual integrity and still be attention grabbing. (Indeed, the overstatement might tell against it, since it’s so unbelievable that over a third of us are humanists it draws attention to the dodginess of the claim.)

    “36% agree with basic tents of humanism”? Even that’s a stretch, but it’s closer to the truth.

    But I don’t think you’ve answered the basic objections. First, you must accept that the poll does not show 36% of the population are humanists, or anything close enough for that to be an accurate precis. If you disagree on this point, then I refer you back to Jeremy’s more robust criticisms and politely question your rationality in this matter!

    Second, given the inaccuracy of the claim, how can a body dedicated to rationality and truth make it?

    Two straight questions.

  12. Two straight answers, and then I must get on with more practical things:

    1 – “the poll does not show 36% of the population are humanists” – Not if you define humanist narrowly, especially as people who accept the term. But in the context in which we are working, fending off a government intent on infusing religion into the institutions of the welfare state and spending millions on “building the capacity” of religious organisations, the fact that 36% of the population accept the basic tenets (as you put it) of humanism is an important and potentially useful finding.

    2 – “given the inaccuracy of the claim, how can a body dedicated to rationality and truth make it?” – On the alleged inaccuracy, see 1. On rationality and truth – come down out of your ivory tower! The BHA is a campaigning organisation, not a university department. To quote two letters from the current tPM:

    “The core of rationality is to behave in the short term in such a way as to achieve one’s long-term goals, always provided that the short-term activity does not directly conflict with the long-term.”

    – I see no direct conflict between an attention-grabbing headline backed by pretty fair evidence and a long-term goal of saving the country from a modern version of theocracy.

    “There is no evidence that any man or woman is totally rational, and to learn to accept this and to think about why this should be, might stop us overvaluing rationality and allow us to see rationality as a useful part of a well rounded life that also includes bodily well being, and a balance of thought, feeling and action”.

    The BHA has action as a high priority.

    Over and out.

  13. New Humanist - Weblog - pingback on March 28, 2007 at 10:01 am
  14. Further to David’s excellent rebuttals, I would like to address a few remaining misconceptions:

    1. Julian things 36% is high. Really? Through experience of people, I would say well over half. I’ve always been concerned that the figure is rather low.

    2. Whatever the anecdotal conjecture though. Surely, professionals should applaud quantitative evidence.

    3. If the posters are humanists themselves (except for David and Julian, I don’t know) then please turn your energies towards the creeping religiosity in our society and don’t waste it on internicine point scoring. This is a main reason why humanism isn’t well recognised and supported, despite 36% of the population holding broadly humanist views.

    4. Surely, it is a rational decision to choose the UK’s foremost and well respected MORI to carry out a poll. We considered other options but felt MORI’s reputation would be an asset. They may like to know that they “fail polling 101”. The original poster offers no rational evidence for this assertion.

    5. As a Marketing professional, I notice something distasteful about the not so subtle prejudice against marketing in the casual dismissing of a professional study. Yes, I’m aware that the profession has a mixed reputation but Philosophers and Sociologists, are in no position to throw stones either. On a professional level, I would expect you to rally to the support of fellow professionals, undertaking quantitative research to support the defence of the secular freedoms which we have enjoyed to-date.

  15. Look, Julian seems to be getting flak here (and on the New Humanist blog), but the orginal posting had absolutely nothing to do with him. I didn’t discuss it with him, and I’m sure he doesn’t approve of my polemical style.

    I’ll reply to the more substantive stuff in a new post.

  16. Hamish MacPherson

    As a humanist, sometime philosophy student and one of the government officials such polls are intended to influence I’d like to add my two peneth.

    Even if the poll had been designed to address all of the above concerns it would still have limited use and wouldn’t be enough to turn policy. Of course as Julian says it’s about getting headlines and within the limited budget it’s done a fair job of getting to grips with a characteristically slippery/ nebulous constituency.

    I think it should be seen as a good starting point (of the kind that most lobbying groups have gone through) on which to build more robust research in the future.

    When Jeremy says “I’d have helped you put together a decent poll for no money, and I’m sure you could easily have found other sociologists also willing to help.” let’s take him up on his offer: Why not create a humanist social scientist group to accompany the humanist philosophers group?

    There are plenty of issues to get started on to allow governement and others to have a more nuanced understanding of religion and belief in today’s society than the census alone allows.

  17. It is a sorry state of affairs to see such slagging off of two groups with so much in common. It’s not disimilar to the debacle going on between Fatah and Hammas, each doing a better hatchet job on the other than any external force.
    I have never understood the absence of cohesion that exists between the BHA and the NSS.
    Can any one explain why they cannot join forces and pool whatever resouces are available to fight for a Secular Humanist body.

  18. What do you mean “two groups with so much in common”?

    I’m not a member of any group. And I have no desire to fight for a Secular Humanist body.

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  24. Jeremy Stangroom

    It has to be said that the BHA has a fine sense of irony.

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