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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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England is now a more expensive place to study than the US. Why?

Is a university education in this country really worth £44,000, and how does our system compare to higher education funding elsewhere?

England has long sneered at American universities and their exorbitant fees. It cannot do so any longer: England is now a more expensive country to study than the US, and is easily the most expensive of eight Anglophone countries – the four UK nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – analysed in a new Sutton Trust report. English students graduating from last year left university with an average of £44,000 in debt £15,000 more than Americans studying at for-profit universities across the pond.

Why do English students have it so much worse than other students in the UK? There are two answers. The first is the government's decision in 2010 to shift much of the cost of university from the general taxpayer to the beneficiaries: the students themselves. The second answer is devolution. The devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have made political choices to differentiate themselves from Westminster by prioritising keeping fees down – even when, as in Scotland, the effect is to benefit middle-class students at the expense of disadvantaged ones. Students in Wales who study in England are eligible for generous grants, meaning they pay less than £4,000 a year rather than up to £9,000. Those studying in Northern Ireland have their fees capped at £3,925. 

Even England's £9,000 fees are puny set against those at elite American universities. In 2016/17 annual, tuition fees at Harvard are $59,550 and, when all else is accounted for, Harvard reckon each year costs students $88,600. But such exorbitant numbers are not the real story. About 60% of Harvard students receive the Harvard Scholarship: a microcosm of how US students benefit from a culture of graduates giving endowents to their old universities that is still lacking in England. Scholarships and bursaries at universities in the US are far more generous than in other countries. And those who go to public universities within their own state pay far less: those graduating after four years leave with an average debt of only US$27,100 [£19,100]. This is why the average debt of US graduates is now considerably less than in England. But those who berate that even America now has a more benign system for students than England should not be so hasty. The majority of US loans are not income contingent, meaning that low earners who are already struggling still have to pay.

Governments throughout the world are grappling with how to fund send an increasing proportion of students to university in an era of austerity. In the last two decades at least 14 countries in the OECD, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, have implemented major reforms to fees, according to the Sutton Trust. In general these reforms have led to students paying a greater share of the cost of their tuition. 

So in a sense what has happened in England is merely an extreme example of an international trend. And the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, which have been hiked up twice since, has been managed better than most acknowledge: indeed, the proportion of disadvantaged students at university has actually risen by one-fifth since tuition fees rose to £9,000.

But, with the poorest students in England now graduating with £50,000 in debt, more students will be driven to ask whether a university education is really worth it. For a small but significant minority, it isn’t. A recent IFS report found that male graduates from 23 low performing institutions – though it sadly declined to name them - earn less, on average, than those who do not go to university, and end up with huge debt to boot.

No matter how expensive a university education has become, not having one is even more expensive. Throughout the world demand for university education continues to soar; in England the average graduate premium is £200,000 over a lifetime. Yet too many dunce universities are saddling students with debt without giving them anything in return.    

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.