Comment: The decline of religion will make us a less welcoming society

By Nick Spencer

Religion – whatever that actually entails – has long suffered from an acute case of NHS-syndrome.

Ask people what they think about the condition of the NHS and answers are liable to be critical: waiting lists, hospital infections and closures, understaffed A&E units, and cover-ups. Ask them what they think about their GP or their most recent out-patient experience, and their response is almost always considerably better.

As with matters physical, so with those spiritual. Ask the public about the church, or The Church, or, worst of all, religion, and you will hear a tirade of vitriol. Ask them about the local vicar, or the neighbour church's mums-and-toddlers group, or Street Pastors, or their neighbour who happens to be a Christian and the response is usually vastly improved. I did precisely this in a series of qualitative research groups a decade ago, and the difference could not have been more pronounced. This week's Sun/ YouGov poll sings from the same hymn sheet.

So, religious people will not be surprised by these results. Should they be worried? In one respect, no. 'Religion' is a notoriously broad and poorly-defined term, covering a multitude of sins and saints. What does it mean to say I am anti- (or indeed pro-) 'religion', when religion covers (or, at least, is heard to cover) al-Qaida, female genital mutilation and the Woolwich murder, alongside Rowan Williams, Cafod and the Quakers. Being anti- (or indeed pro-) religion is like being anti- (or pro-) the weather.

Similarly, the idea that not very many young people are influenced by religious leaders is not really headline-grabbing stuff. Between ourselves, not many religious believers are. Given that other public figures, like politicians, who actually have some power, were judged influential by only 38%, it is no shock that religious leaders, who don't, scored so low. Frankly, I'm astonished as many one in eight young people admit to such an influence.

Finally, the fact that 38% of young people said they did not believe in a God or greater spiritual power, compared with 44% who did, should not be taken at face value. More detailed research into a full range of spiritual beliefs, such as that conducted by Theos/ ComRes last year entitled Faith of the Faithless, found that only nine per cent of the adult population was consistent in their rejection of religion. Unbelief is no less a complex phenomenon than belief.

So, there are plenty of reasons why the 'religious' should not be shocked or unduly worried by these data. And yet, they would be daft to ignore them altogether. The direction of travel over the last decade is clear. Christianity, which has not been the majority religious position for over a century, has now clearly ceased to be the majority cultural or even nominal position.

Whereas disinterest is clearly now the default position, it is possible to see this slipping into hostility, particularly if the horrors of Woolwich are repeated and then pinned onto some amorphous monster called 'religion'. 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. This is far from the case today, but should we move in that direction it would be bad news for those of 'no religion' as much as for believers, creating a less unified and welcoming society to live in

At the moment, the British muddle along together reasonably well. This will become more challenging as the nation grows ever more plural. We will need precision in our terms, care in our speech, and respect in our interactions to keep it so.

Nick Spencer is research director of Theos, the religion and society think tank.

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