Why ‘no religion’ is the new religion
Monday, February 1st, 2016
This spring sees the British Academy running a series of lectures exploring faith. Just a few decades ago many were predicting the demise and decline of religion, but the reality is that religion still plays a very prominent role in national, international and civic debates and discussions and is far from disappearing from the modern world. The first in the series, delivered on 19th January 2016 entitled “Why ‘no religion’ in the new religion”, was delivered by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University.
The event was hosted in London at the British Academy in their Wolfson auditorium and the spaces soon filled up. An adjoining overflow room was used to accommodate the extra people. I was told that approximately 250 people attended the lecture.
The crux of the lecture was how Britain over the last 40 or 50 years has shifted from being a “Christian” majority country to a country which has shifted to a “no religion” country as more and more people choose “none” when asked what their religion is on the national census paper. Professor Woodhead points out that the British, traditionally, have never really seen themselves as particularly religious even when they identified as Church of England. She also notes that whilst people have shifted to “religion none” they are not necessarily atheist nor are they antagonistic towards religion in general. Those atheists who are of the Richard Dawkins variety are quite small in number among them, fewer than 13%.
Despite the dwindling numbers of those identifying themselves as “Christian”, religion still remains a growing force in modern society and is fundamental to it. She went on to note that religion is badly handled and misunderstood by government when it came to legislation and policy. The study also finds that the “nones” are not secularists either and don’t reject the notion of “religion”. 40% of those who were raised as Christian as children, also lapse out of the faith in adulthood. Those who identify themselves as Christian have a much higher age profile than those who polled “none” and this trend is fastest growing among the young. She puts this down to the widening gap between society’s liberal attitudes and the Church’s solidification of their traditional values. White British society has become “less religious” whilst the Church, it seems, has become “more religious”. Issues like remarrying after divorce, ordination of women priests and gay marriage are just some of the things that the Church is seen as “behind the curve” of public opinion. In contrast, she says, The Church of Denmark has retained a much stronger number of people who identified themselves as Christian due to its accommodation of liberal public attitudes. Interestingly though, church attendance figures are not too dissimilar between the CofE and CofD, being 1.5% and 2% of the population respectively.
So who are the winners in this situation? Buddhism is viewed quite favourably by the “nones” but the main winner is the British Humanist Association who seem to resonate with the “nones” much more than any other organised group, religious or otherwise.
What lessons are there here for Muslims? Islam and Muslims in Britain are constantly in the spotlight. We seem to be a community under siege from the media, government and now some members of the public. Whilst the young White British population are shedding their Christian identity (which was, arguably, nominal in the first place), the opposite seems to be happening with young Muslims who seem to reassert their faith in their late teens and early 20s and tend to be more “religious” than their parents. The link between religion and national identity for young white British people has been severed, but for Muslims there is a strong identity link and this doesn’t look as though it will go the same way as white British youth. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, religion is an integral part of the culture and identity of Muslim ethnic minorities. Secondly, Islam is a religion of daily ritual and even a mechanical practice of the religion strengthens adherence to it at a subconscious level. Thirdly, the media and politicians constantly remind us of our religion and our “otherness”. Not a day goes by when Islam and Muslims are not mentioned in some context; usually negatively. I personally know of people whose attachment to Islam had been superficial and nominal, but who now have deepened their attachment to their inherited faith because of the pervasive media and political coverage.
Clearly, British society is undergoing rapid social change and Muslims find themselves, by virtue of who they are and what they represent, as a community that is being affected by these changes but also one that is having an impact on these changes, an impact that is not always positive. It is important for British Muslims, and especially British Muslim leaders, to be aware of these changes because we will be fundamentally affected by them over the next couple of decades.
Upcoming talks around the country are as follows:
Tuesday 16th February 2016, 5.30pm
Does religion do more harm than good?
Thursday 3rd March 2016, 6.30pm
Is true religion always extremist?
Queen’s University Belfast
The full results of the poll can be viewed on the YouGov site.
The talk by Professor Woodhead can be viewed below: