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Are We Losing Our Religion?

05/01/2017 13:25
Stephan Senzel via Getty Images

The decline of religious belief in the UK is happening. Its progress is slow, and inconsistent, but it is happening. The British Social Attitudes survey, an annual process, tracked the moment in 2013 when the Church of England's practising community fell below 50% of the total population. This year's BSA study recorded 48% of participants to have "no religion" at all.

There is no doubt that generational shifts have a role to play. The number of senior celebrities passing away this year is a stark reminder of this truth. The interesting statistics lay, at least for me, in those surrounding young people. What their statistics show is a window into the future of religious practice; Professor Linda Woodhead saw small fluctuations as shadows of a larger-scale, declining trend we ought to acknowledge, "We shouldn't be looking to see a collapse in numbers in a few years, we have got to look at the long-term picture. But I can't imagine any factor that would lead this trend to change."

From personal experience, I remember attending church regularly for major holidays; a practice which has since ceased in our household. Christmas, for example, has always been about family values for me, but increasingly less about observing midnight mass. Focusing on what statistical evidence we do have; the data related to young people portrayed an increasing slump in those identifying with organised religious bodies, even bordering on increasing distrust of these entities. YouGov found over half of millennials had "no religion"; 38% of those not believing in any God or "greater spiritual power" whatsoever. More recent BSA findings found 62% of younger people (under 25) identify as "non-believers", which was actually a drop from 65%, the year before. That same poll noted that 41% of young, British people in the study also felt that religion was "the cause of evil, rather than good" in the world. There are plenty of factors that might have caused this statistic, however there is a definite inclination to point a finger to issues like growing instances of Islamophobia in relation to global conflicts, or abuse scandals closer to home. These issues have almost certainly triggered some degree of distrust in religious bodies.

The most I can reasonably predict from my own inconclusive level of knowledge would be that young people are often finding a form of inner-spirituality, a more personal God if you will, as an alternative to the traditional format of organised church-going. As the population grows, we also must acknowledge the increasingly diverse population we now have. In 2013, approximately 1 in 10 people under 25 identified as Muslim, while the total number practising alternative religions to Christianity (Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam, for example) trebled from 2% in 1983 to 6%. The issue with many of these studies is their leaning towards a decline in Christianity or Catholicism in the UK, which can be skewed by any number of factors beyond a sense of distrust in the church or lack of religious parenting.

Interesting statistics from European Global attitudes studies discovered that an overwhelming majority of young people feel that religious belief is not a prerequisite to being a moral person; 85% in France and 80% in Spain, respectively. This sort of information begins to offer insight into the future of what our religious world might become. An internal spirituality might be becoming the only church many us need. Although, this process will not only be incredibly gradual, but possibly too intertwined with other factors to ever be accurately pinpointed.

The recent scandal surrounding Jewish people opting for certain Universities based on anti-Semitic perceptions of certain institutions was worrying to say the least, but ultimately difficult to classify as result of trending belief. In Exeter, for example, the Friends of Palestine Society hosted a renowned Anti-Semite to speak. This sort of issue, one found at many Universities who regularly host divisive speakers, can be equally related to freedom of speech and expression arguments as much as it is an issue of religious division and decline.

I repeatedly find these issues fall into the expansive "grey" areas where we try and argue them as "Black and white". Religious societies are present in almost all universities and appear to generally flourish year on year, rarely dealing with media scandal. Religion itself has become increasingly personal for many younger people, to the point of often becoming a taboo topic of discussion; it will rarely escape debate in most dormitories. That said, the UK is statistically becoming more secular, as subtle as that change is. At the tail-end of difficult year, I want to say that many young people are simply trying to find something to believe in. In this society, we have the beauty of choice in our belief. If I were to hope our society believed in anything; from the words of Cesare Pevese; "Love is the cheapest of religions."

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