Are religious people really more left-wing?

Demos's analysis suffers from some severe methodological problems.

In his Easter sermon, Rowan Williams suggested that "the high watermark of aggressive polemic against religious faith has passed".  Right on cue comes a report  from think-tank Demos suggesting that (in the words of author Jonathan Birdwell) the "natural allies" of progressives "may look more like the Archbishop of Canterbury than Richard Dawkins."  

Faithful Citizens (available here) boasts a foreword from the former Labour minister Stephen Timms, who writes that religious faith can provide  "a key source for the values the Labour party exists to promote and the aspirations it seeks to realise" and "a large reservoir of potential support for Labour's aims."  

That might come as a surprise to Oliver James, who wrote at the end of last month that he assumed that Guardian readers were "a largely agnostic or atheist bunch." But beyond the obvious point that not all practising Christians fit into a US-derived stereotype of the Religious Right, what does the report actually tell us about faith and politics in 21st century Britain?

Based on an analysis of the UK Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, the report highlights apparent correlations between religious commitment and social or political activism.  It emerges, for example, that 55% of people with faith described themselves as left of centre, that they were more likely than the non-religious to value equality over freedom and less likely to have negative feelings about immigrants. 

There was also a suggestion that the actively religious were more active politically, being more engaged in local community work, more likely to sign petitions or go on demonstrations, more likely to belong to a political party than people who weren't religious.  This would not, in itself, prove that believers are more left-wing.  Some might, after all, be volunteering for the Conservative party.  But taken together with the findings about general social attitudes, at least as reported at the weekend, it would seem to provide encouragement for Labour politicians to "do God" more enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, the analysis suffers from some severe methodological problems.

 The report looks at both the UK and some other European countries, but the selection of those countries looks somewhat arbitrary.  Switzerland, we are told, was excluded because it was not a member state of the EU, Italy because the patterns it revealed were "anomalous" (significantly, we are not told what was so anomalous about Italy) and the Scandanavian countries because "research consistently shows higher levels of civic engagement... which would have skewed our results". 

Since Scandanavian countries also consistently score low in markers of religious observance and belief in God, one can see how this might have "skewed" the result that Demos wants to present, that there is a natural link between religiosity and social activism. 

The report divides the public into three broad groups: "exclusivists" who believe that their religion is the One True Faith; secularists, who regard religions as all equally false; and "pluralists", less exclusive believers.  Unfortunately, the latter category is wholly artificial, as it combines two entirely different stances: followers of one religion who are prepared to concede that other religions might teach some common truths or ethical principles, and vaguely "spiritual" types who believe that no one religion has a monopoly of the truth. 

A "pluralist" might be a very devout and committed follower of their faith, or might not be a practising member of  any religion at all.  The category is meaningless.  It is especially meaningless if the aim, as that of the Demos reports appears to be, is to harness the social activism of practising religionists to progressive causes.

What about the key finding that religious believers were "more likely to be left-of-centre"? The way that this finding was reported strongly implied that believers were more likely to be left-wing than non-believers.  But this was not, in fact, the case. The figures for the UK showed that while 55% of believers considered themselves left-of-centre, 62% of non-believers did so.  Thus believers were actually less likely than secularists to consider themselves left-wing! 

With the other headline findings the picture was equally mixed.  We read with some surprise that "the extent to which someone feels that religion is important to their sense of identity does not appear to have a positive impact on their civic engagement."  On freedom versus equality, in the UK a clear majority (approaching 60%) of both the religiously affiliated and of secularists prioritised freedom.  Support for freedom was almost identical between the groups, though there were slightly less enthusiasm for equality among the non-religious (36% as opposed to 41%).  In the continental European sample there was indeed a clear divide, with religious believers more likely to prioritise equality; but here I suspect that not including the Scandanavian countries may have skewed the result.

On most other issues, there's very little difference between the views of believers and those of non-believers, and while practising religionists were indeed slightly more likely to be active in other ways, the divergence was not great.  For example, in the UK 12% of those who belonged to a religious organisation professed themselves "very interested" in politics, as opposed to 11% of those who were unaffiliated.  Well within the margin of error.

85% of British respondents, both religious and secular, said that competition was good rather than harmful.  There were similarly high levels of support for personal responsibility as opposed to reliance on the state.  Such answers raise obvious questions about the self-definition of the majority of people as left-of-centre politically but say nothing at all about the influence of religion.

One thing that the report does concede is that religious observance in the UK continues to decline -- 50% of Britains do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion, as opposed to 31% thirty years ago.  The trend is especially strong among younger citizens.  So politicians both left and right should perhaps think before chasing religious votes with too much enthusiasm. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams famously described himself as a "bearded lefty". Photograph: Getty Images.
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.