Faith by numbers: why religion still matters

A global poll emphasises the central and growing importance of religion to world society.

In the latest edition of IPSOS MORI's research journal, Understanding Society, Tony Blair talks about the central and growing importance of religion to global society.

The reasoning is compelling. In a world that may seem increasingly secular to many of us, it is easy to forget that religious belief is a central part of life for hundreds of millions of people. MORI's study in 24 countries showed that 69 per cent say they have a religion -- and of these, 40 per cent say it is very important to them.

And the importance of religion does not exist separately from other spheres of life -- it often has a direct impact on social, political and economic issues. For example, our recent election polling in Nigeria (which correctly predicted a comfortable victory for Goodluck Jonathan) showed that voting patterns very clearly followed religious lines. That's not to say religion was the only, or even the main, driver of the result -- but this strong link between faith and political outcomes is seen across a number of countries.

But the importance of faith is not just an issue for the present -- it seems set to become even more important in the future. It is trite to say that the world is going to look very different in 30 years -- but the scale of change and the importance of faith to understanding some key elements of this are difficult to overstate.

The growth of developing countries will change the social, political and economic landscape entirely -- and many of these emergent economies have faith as an important part of life. This doesn't just mean India -- for example, in Brazil 84 per cent say they have a religion, and 97 per cent of these say it is important to them. And as Blair also points out, the economic potential of Africa over the coming decades is huge, and in many African countries faith is much more central to social and political life.

We are also going to see significant shifts in the religious profile of the world with, for example, the Muslim population growing at twice the rate of non-Muslims and projected to make up over a quarter of the global population within the next 20 years.

The growing importance of religious understanding will not just result from the rebalancing of the world economy and changing population sizes -- we are also going to see greater contact between people of different faiths. Globalisation will continue to increase the interconnectedness of business and societies. There is also a high probability that political crises and climate change are going to mix populations even more. With all these forces at play, it will be vital for us all to increase our religious literacy and acceptance.

But when we look at current attitudes to religion, they demonstrate how conflicted we are globally. For example, a poll MORI conducted in 24 countries ahead of the Munk Debate between Mr Blair and Christoper Hitchens at the end of 2010 showed an almost perfect split in views on religion: 48 per cent believe that religion provides the common values and ethical foundation that diverse societies need in the 21st Century -- and 52 per cent that religious beliefs promote intolerance and exacerbate divisions.

The significant suspicion that religion arouses is seen in a number of studies. For example, the World Values Survey asked people across 55 countries who they would least like as a neighbour. The top answer, by some distance, was drug addicts -- but still one in five people said they would not like to be neighbours with someone from a different religion, twice the proportion that picked out people with a criminal record.

Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by this as religion, by its nature, does bring certain types of division. In our most recent polling we asked whether people think their faith is the only path to salvation -- and a quarter of all those with religious beliefs agreed, rising to around 60 per cent in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. While this does not necessarily lead to separation, it does require serious consideration: how can people with religiously exclusive beliefs co-exist peacefully within politically pluralist societies? In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, this is not a theoretical question but an urgent one

But on the other side is religion's practical force for good. Around three in ten of the population across the 24 countries say that religion is an important motivator in their giving of time or money to those in need. This echoes the work of the Harvard academic Robert Putnam and colleagues, which shows that the religious in the US are three to four times more likely to be civically engaged, and that this is not just in supporting religious causes but secular ones too. The driving force for this turns out not to be faith in itself, but being part of a community. It is no wonder then that, in the UK, where the government is trying to create a "Big Society" of people taking more responsibility for looking after themselves and others, the potential religion provides has created a lot of interest among politicians and policy-makers.

However, our survey highlights how much this positive impact of religion varies across countries, as the range of those saying religion encourages them to give their time or money runs from 11 per cent in Sweden and 12 per cent in France to 84 per cent in Indonesia. As with many aspects of religion, the variety and complexity of local contexts is extraordinary.

This points to the biggest challenge, how to increase understanding across different faith groups, and this is one of the key areas where the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is focusing, including working with young people, schools and universities to increase interaction and positive activity. The scale of the task is daunting -- there are no issues with more entrenched positions than religion -- but one of the few things that those on different sides of the debate agree on is that religion itself is not going away any time.


Bobby Duffy is the Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute (SRI). Ruth Turner is the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide