Does it matter that young people in Britain aren't religious?

A recent poll of young people found that 41 per cent thought that religion was the cause of more harm than good in the world.

Young people in Britain aren't religious. Actually, increasing numbers of people young and old aren't religious, as the census data shows (the dramatic decline in the Christian headcount had much to do with people who had already been adults ten years previously providing a different answer this time) but today's 18-24 years olds are probably the most irreligious generation yet. 

Take, for example, the results of a YouGov poll of "Generation Y" released yesterday. Only 25 per cent say that they believe in God, as opposed 38 per cent who definitely don't. It may not be surprising that fewer than ten per cent attend religious worship on anything like a regular basis (at least once a month) but one finding stands out starkly. 41 per cent thought that religion was the cause of more harm than good in the world. Only 14 per cent (a considerably smaller figure than that for belief in God) thought that religion was, on balance, a good thing. Richard Dawkins and the other "New Atheists" would seem to have got their message across.

It's not that today's young adults are lacking in blind faith: no fewer than 70 per cent expect to own their own homes one day.  It's just that they're not looking to religion to give meaning to their lives or to shore up their values, which remain in many ways quite traditional. The findings look especially bleak for Christianity. Affiliation and belief are holding up well among young Britons from Muslim and other minority religious backgrounds. On the other hand, only 13 per cent feel an affiliation to the Church of England, which must be worrying for an institution that still feels a duty to provide a moral lead to the nation and wants to cling on to its ex officio seats in the House of Lords.

So what of those who buck the trend? Nick Spencer of the Christian think tank Theos has expressed some concern at the news, fearing that the current default position of disinterest might slip into hostility:  "That could mean that religious believers, of all stripes, find it hard to be heard dispassionately in public debate but it might herald worse, such as children mocked for their religious beliefs, the curtailment of civil liberties in the name of secular equality, or even physical attacks, such as several mosques endured in the wake of Woolwich." 

Even without outright hostility young Christians, in particular, find themselves in a minority.  They can't count on other people understanding their faith, let alone sharing it.

Some in depth research (pdf) carried out in Glasgow around five years ago as part of the "Youth and Religion" project shed some light on what it was like to be young and Christian in a disbelieving society. It found that younger believers tended to have a more self-conscious, active in some ways more defensive faith than that of their parents' generation. They were more likely to see Christianity as part of a personal identity - indeed, as something that distinguished themselves from their peers. Most believed that it was difficult to be a Christian today, even that Christians were discriminated against. 

But this if anything made them more determined. Far from a more secular society producing a watered-down faith in those who still believe, they took strength from the counter-cultural nature of religion today - a contrast to what had been found in surveys in the United States, where Christianity remains more mainstream. It's no surprise, then, to find practising Christians over-represented in campaign groups, whether around environmental or social issues or on more traditionally "religious" topics such as abortion.

The ways in which religion is being practised seem to be adapting to the era of social networks. The Glasgow research discovered that "Generation Y appears to be constructing religious experience and practices in different ways than previous generations...  Some who consider themselves Christian may not attend a service on Sunday or be a member of a church at all. Nearly all young people weave together a range of different ‘encounters’ and ‘relationships’ – youth groups, Bible study, music events, work, worship at skate parks, personal study or reflection – to create unique religious packages."

An example of what this might mean in practice is the inter-denominational "Fresh Expressions" initiative, which sets out to create and support "new ways of being church" - for example, Christian groups meeting at car boot sales or forming around geo-cacheing.  An Anglican church in Cambridge pioneered a "Goth Eucharist" which was more-or-less exactly what you'd expect it to be: dark candles and darker music, but with a Christian twist.

The Fresh Expressions initiative featured in a bizarre-sounding report last week that the Church of England was setting up a "pagan church" in the hope of attracting druids and hippies into its ranks. Timed neatly to coincide with the Summer Solstice, mentioned the Church Mission Society's Andrea Campenale, who had set up a "Christian tent" at a pagan festival in Eastbourne.  Another of those quoted, the Reverend Steve Hollingshurst (who is associated with Fresh Expressions), denied that he was hoping to convert pagans; rather, he explained, he wanted to explore why new forms of spirituality seemed to "address the lives of many though not all people today far more effectively than the church". 

The churches' loss of numbers, confirmed by the latest poll, would suggest that Hollingshurst is right about the ineffectiveness of traditional Christianity, especially at appealing to the young. Yet Evangelical congregations continue to grow and young believers, though relatively few in number, make up for it in terms of dedication and visibility. And they are helped, surely, by one of the great paradoxes of our times: that the less widely practised religion is, the more newsworthy it seems to be.

A Lent service. Photograph: Getty Images
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era