Which is worse, being Christian or being Conservative?

by | September 8, 2015

Just this week, the Angus Reid Institute released an interesting survey about Canadian attitudes toward the European refugee/migrant crisis. Most of the results really weren’t all that surprising. Canadians support intervention to help the refugees by a slim margin (54%), though that support comes mostly from voters leaning Liberal and NDP – 63% of Conservative supporters show a complete lack of empathy. There was, however, one interesting surprise in the data.

Canada has a very complicated history of accepting refugees, but one that is, on the whole, pretty positive. Older Canadians might remember the “Vietnamese boat people” crisis – people fleeing the Vietnam War and its aftermath (and not just Vietnamese, some were fleeing Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Laos). The current crisis is an almost perfect echo of that. Then, as now, Western countries were slow to respond. At first they simply turned away refugees and sent them back, usually to die in labour camps. Uncounted thousands died at sea, or were murdered by pirates. Then, as now, the Canadian government at first responded with an overwhelming “meh”.

But that changed when a powerful grassroots movement forced Pierre Trudeau to take action, and Canada ended up taking over 200,000 new immigrants. The result is now considered a landmark historical humanitarian triumph, and a source of Canadian national pride. Unsurprisingly, people are already urging for a repeat of that history (part 1 of that story segment). (And the deaths of Alan and Ghalib Kurdi may be the tragedy needed to force action.)

Canadians’ responses to the current crisis fall quite predictably in line with their preferred party:

Angus Reid survey 2015-09-04: chart-should-canada-take-refugees-by-party-preference

No surprises there. Harper’s message on the situation has been that the refugees are probably harbouring terrorists, and even for the legitimate refugees fleeing war and destruction, we can fix that problem by bombing their home countries more. It’s only natural that his supporters would echo the sentiment.

There was a rather depressing finding that it is mostly older Canadians who are following the story – younger Canadians don’t seem to care all that much. But that’s not the finding I found most interesting.

In addition to party lines, ARI also asked respondents whether they were a “practising Christian”, a “non-practising Christian”, or have “no religious identity”. (These were the only options respondents were given, as far as I’m aware.) This part is entirely unsurprising: Shock of shocks, the Conservative party is heavily Christian, with the Liberals only moderately Christian, and the NDP even less so:

Angus Reid survey 2015-09-04: chart-party-preference-by-religious-affiliation

But here’s where it gets interesting. ARI pulled out all the Conservative supporters, asked them some key questions, and then charted them according to their religious affiliation. Here is the somewhat surprising result:

Angus Reid survey 2015-09-04: chart-conservative-support-for-refugees-by-religious-affiliation

That’s right: Among Conservative Party supporters, the more Christian you are, the more humane and empathetic your position is with respect to the crisis. Another option not in the chart above was “Canada should do nothing”. 25% of practising Christians agreed with that… and 37% of “nones” (and 30% of “non-practising Christians”).

In other words, at least among Conservative Party supporters, the “nones” are the assholes. The people that actually care are the Christians. My head spins.

The reason why this is so shocking is that usually when these types of surveys are done, it’s pretty much a rote result that higher religiosity correlates to decreased empathy for others. We’ve all seen tons of studies that show that the non-religious just care more about other people, and are more willing to acknowledge and respect their individuality, humanity, and dignity. I would have bet big money that the results of this survey would have been the exact opposite: that any empathy for the refugees that exists within the Conservative fan base would come from the “nones”. Colour me surprised.

The key difference may be that this is a rare instance where – unlike LGBTQ issues, or women’s issues – the religion itself has nothing specific to say on the topic. It’s more or less up to individuals to decide what action they think Canada should take.

The result raises several intriguing questions. The standard narrative among nonbelievers is that giving up religion tends to make you more attuned to and interested in “worldly matters”, including your fellow humans, which thus tends to make you more empathetic and more progressive: atheism → empathy → progressivism. But what if that’s all wrong? What if the reality is that empathy doesn’t come from being atheist at all? What if the idea that atheism tends to lead to humanism is entirely specious?

In fact, what if it’s the other way around entirely? What if being empathetic and inclined to humanism leads you to recognized the evils wrought by religion, and that is what creates atheists? That would have unnerving implications. Atheists prefer to identify the source of their atheism as reason, not emotion. On the other hand, it would explain why atheists who came by their atheism by other means – not via humanism – could seem like a different species altogether. It could explain why there are such deep divides between the “empathy atheists” – those that came by and associate their atheism with humanism and empathy, and thus consider social justice the paramount issue – and the “academic atheists” – those that came by and associate their atheism with purely logical processes, and thus who consider advancing and protecting science (and debunking pseudoscience) as the paramount.

Obviously we can’t draw any conclusions from a single result in a single non-peer-reviewed survey that was only tangential to the main aim of the survey. Clearly more study is needed before we can take any of these speculations seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can’t let these results give us pause, or that we can’t consider their implications.

At the very least, they seem to suggest this much: When someone identifies as a “Conservative Christian”, the most worrisome part of that might not actually be the “Christian” part.

7 thoughts on “Which is worse, being Christian or being Conservative?

  1. billybob

    The current empathy is “news worthy bandwagon empathy.” Normally most people don’t care but but this is front page so now you are supposed to care or be shunned. Every day thousands of children die a horrible death and we don’t care, at least not until it becomes news.

    Empathy is a myth, at least until the next heart rending picture is in the news.

    You are analyzing a myth, its almost like religion.

  2. Tim Underwood

    Being ambivalent about this horror story is quite understandable. I wouldn’t impede any rescue efforts but I feel absolutely left on the sideline. More highly religious people making Canada their new home. Great news!
    The Catholic Vietnamese had little hope of a pleasant life in their home country after the much-persecuted Buddhist majority won the war with Soviet aid.
    What about global overpopulation? Canada is a pressure relief valve for the runaway family sizes in the highly religious war zones. Remember also, to live in Canada entails an extremely high energy consumption.
    Most everyone would rescue any person found in distress; no matter what the risk or imposition is. The only qualifier is how gladly we do what must be done.
    Again, the religious are taking charge and spending other people’s money. Hurray for religious wars and religious interventions. Great news!
    If these were secular Jews, fleeing a totalitarian Christen Europe or Russia, the statistics may be inverted.

    1. Tim Underwood

      I didn’t really address the question. I would rather be conservative than be a Christian. Rationing Canada’s energy resources would be a conservative idea. Hell, I even buy secondhand car tires because it just seems to be the responsible thing to do. In David Allen Coe’s vernacular, “If that ain’t conservative, I kiss your ass.”
      Being Christian may induce me to do things where the reward would come later on, in heaven, for example. I could never convince myself of such a possibility.
      The most responsible thing to do is to convince religiously afflicted people of the great absurdity. Young people, who dedicate part of their intellectual precious time towards explaining apostolic succession nonsense and made-up stories to religiously obsessed adults, may seem to be wasting their time. It is less a waste of time than spending years of military service only to help wipe out each successive religious enthusiasm.

  3. Heather Hastie

    After a lot of public pressure, the government has announced that NZ will take 750 Syrian refugees. I support this. If it was announced we were to take 200,000 (or perhaps 20,000 in light of our smaller popn), I would be opposed. So I might show up as opposed in this survey, even though I support doing more.

    We have a really good resettlement programme. Like Canada, we’re one of only 22 countries in the world that takes quota refugees. (We come in around 6th or 7th per capita.) Like you we took a lot of the Tampa refugees, and they were supported by our programme.

    If we suddenly took 20,000, they wouldn’t be looked after properly. We’ve got a whole lot of people offering them a bed for example, but they’re not thinking about money, food, education, ongoing support, mental and physical health, and all the other things they’ll need help with. Some could even end up living on the streets. They’d be safe from bombs in NZ, but if they came as part of a group of 20,000, they could face a lot of other problems.

    So I want us to take the number we can support well. I want us to increase the capacity of our current refugee programme. I want us to increase the amount we’re providing in international aid (which we have, but we should give more) to support UNHCR etc. And I want us to continue to provide diplomatic support to sort out these problems at the source. If they could, most refugees would prefer to stay in their own countries.

    1. Indi Post author

      The thing with the 200,000 number is I didn’t just pull it out of the air. That’s what we were able to take. Successfully. Over 20 years ago, when our population was ~10 million less than it is today. And Canada is still one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world: We have room. (Of course we probably would not need to take on that many – if other countries do their fair share, our load would be a small fraction of that.)

      I would never advocate any country taking on more refugees than it could handle. New Zealand is a different country: it’s population density is already around 4-5 times Canada’s, and I suspect more of your “available” land is already used for farming than ours. At least for Canada, the argument that we can’t handle 200,000 is trivially refuted.

  4. ultra

    conservative doesn’t equal unrepentant evil?

    Next you’ll be saying Harper isn’t an alien lizardman that eats female babies.

    We know better!
    Stop Harperion!


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