London: A Rising Island of Religion in a Secular Sea

Global demographic shifts become amplified in immigration gateways like London. To see what this might mean politically, consider the long history of demographic change in America.

'Christianity is on the decline while Islam is on the up,' writes Peter Hitchens, echoing the views of many who digested the astounding 2011 census results.

Those of White British ancestry have declined from 87 to 80% of the population of England and Wales while the proportion of Christians has plummeted from 71 to 59%. For many, this signals the emergence of what Hitchens dubs an 'alien nation': a singular process of English decline. But the link between Christianity, religion and Englishness is not so simple. What if the demise of the white British is the salvation of Christianity, and the best hope for faith in England?

In my book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century, I argue that 97% of the world's population growth is taking place in the developing world, where 95% of people are religious.

On the other hand, the secular West and East Asia has very low fertility and a rapidly aging population. The demographic disparity between the religious, growing global South and the aging, secular global North will peak around 2050. In the coming decades, the developed world's demand for workers to pay its pensions and work in its service sector will soar alongside the booming supply of young people in the third world. Ergo, we can expect significant immigration to the secular West which will import religious revival on the back of ethnic change. In addition, those with religious beliefs tend to have higher birth rates than the secular population, with fundamentalists having far larger families. The epicentre of these trends will be in immigration gateway cities like New York (a third white), Amsterdam (half Dutch), Los Angeles (28% white), and London, 45% white British.

Let's take a closer look at the UK census figures. These show that the proportion of white British in the capital declined from 58 to 45% of London's population in ten years, twice the fall recorded in England. But hold on: the number of Christians nosedived by 3.8million in England but fell a mere 220,000 in London. In nine London boroughs, the number of Christians actually increased, with Hackney and Newham topping the list. Now let's add non-Christians to the picture. The number of religious people in England declined by over 2million in the past decade but grew by 440,000 in London. In seven London boroughs, reverse secularisation took place. In Redbridge and Newham, the share of nonreligious people in the population was cut in half!

This has ramifications for the religious geography of England. London, especially ethnically diverse boroughs like Newham and Redbridge, is where the faithful of England are congregating. Demography, in the form of immigration, religious fertility and a young age structure, is driving the shift. Several years ago, a study discovered that 60 percent of parishioners in London churches were nonwhite. Few were white British. In diverse North London, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians from the global South and Eastern Europe rub shoulders with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish population that has the highest birthrate in Britain. My colleagues who teach Sociology and Politics at diverse London Metropolitan University remark that the usual secular assumptions which lecturers bring to the classroom do not apply. African Pentecostalist and South Asian Muslim students agree on few points of doctrine, but both find fault with the secular public culture that prevails in Britain. In a map of nonreligion in England and Wales, London, especially northeast and northwest London, stands out as a religious heartland.

Global demographic shifts become amplified in immigration gateways like London. To see what this might mean politically, consider the long history of demographic change in America. At independence in 1776, 98% of Americans were Protestant. After 1840, Catholics began to pour into the northern states, and most supported the Democrats. The partisan battle lines pit 'old stock' Protestant Americans against the 'immigrant stock' Catholics or Jews. This is the position Britain is in today, with most non-Christians, apart from Jews, supporting the Left while the Tories remain a white British party. However, in the 1970s, the Religious Right emerged, and quickly began to bring conservative Catholics and evangelicals together behind moral crusades like abortion. Orthodox Jews and, before 9/11, conservative Muslims, started voting Republican.

The success of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California in 2008 showed that Latino Catholics and African-American Protestants could successfully join in. In the new culture wars it didn't matter which religion you were as long as you were pious. With London becoming increasingly diverse and religious in relation to the rest of England, the Right may do the math and ditch an ethnic politics of white nationalism to appeal to minority 'values voters'. Might London mayoral candidates one day have to declare themselves 'faith-friendly' to get elected?


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