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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.