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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser