Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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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.

A Lent service. Photograph: Getty Images

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.