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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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.