‘Religious Revival and the Failure of Politics’

I spoke on Thursday at an event entitled ‘Religious revival and the failure of politics’ (photos here I honestly found it very interesting so I don’t know when this photo was taken.)

The premise of the event was the claim that secular politics has failed to engage people and there has been a spiritual questing and resurgence of religious beliefs and identities to fill the gap.

I didn’t agree with the premise. This is what I said (I haven’t referenced the stats but you should go to www.brin.ac.uk for hours of belief stats entertainment):

1. There hasn’t been a religious revival…

Practice: Between 1950 and 1980 Sunday church attendance halved, and between 1980 and 2005 it halved again, now it hovers around 7% of the population. There has been no reversal of this trend in the last few years. On an average week, 90% of people do not attend any place of worship.

Belief: Positive belief in gods halved between 1960 and now, to about 26% of the population and although this fluctuates more than religious practice, there has been no reversal in this trend in recent years.

Identity: has declined and is declining – down to about 49% identifying with a religious label.

These three declines – in practice, belief and identity – may show slight plateaux in some cases in recent times and some declines lag behind others (eg identity lags behind practice and belief) but none of them show any recent reversal that would indicate a ‘revival’ of religiosity.

2. …and if it is true that religious groups are more visible, it may be because of their type…

The simple trends described above do conceal changes in types of religion. For example, these days less than 32% of Christians are Anglican and about 45% are independent evangelicals. That’s a massive change and may make it seem like there is resurgence in numbers. So too may the prominence of religions which have a strong ethnic element like Islam.

Even so, only about 7% of religious people say religion is the most important element in their personal identity – lower than nationality, country of birth, city, town or village in which they live, ethnicity, immediate neighbourhood, and almost all other factors.

3. …but many of the contemporary issues that appear to involve religion are not mainly do with personal religiosity.

There is a bit of an upsurge in talk of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ in recent times, but this is either (i) Christianity as a cultural heritage rather than as a religion, (ii) done for political reasons, to appeal to a middling conservative vote than likes that sort of thing (iii) a form of negative integration practiced against Muslims, who are seen by some as an undesirable cultural threat, (iv) self-interested rhetoric from church leaders. It’s not really a religious thing per se.

You could make the same argument for a perceived upsurge in Muslim identities, which may have more to do with UK foreign policy, globalization and political identities than with personal religious belief.

4. There has been a failure of secular politics at least in the formal sense…

Turnout in elections in the UK is low and there is a lack of public knowledge about our formal politics and public engagement with the system.

5. …but not in the informal sense…

Volunteering, engagement and participation in various forms is still relatively high in the UK and we have a thriving civil society (about 70% of which is secular); networks of engaged activists and single-issue campaigns have proliferated and expanded. This is all healthy (though obviously could be improved further).

5. …and there is no sign this is being replaced with a religious approach.

About 68% of people think that religion should not influence laws and policies in Britain and the mean trustworthiness score of local religious leaders (2.95) is only slightly higher than that of local MPs (2.58) and lower that that of local GPs and local teachers.

Religious groups and leaders are the top domestic group that people think have too much influence on government.

70% of Britons of Asian ethnicity say that their religion would not influence their decision about which party to vote for (Hindus (84%), Sikhs (81%) Muslims (60%)).

6. The solution is not to resort to religion but to build engagement and participation in a shared politics

There are many problems with bringing religion into politics. Religious identities can emphasise divisions, religious institutions may act in their institutional interests rather than those of their members of wider society, unshared religious beliefs codified into law oppress dissenters and minorities. Even in mature liberal democracies, an emphasis on religion within public policy is damaging: it encourages us to think of people as groups rather than individuals and that marginalizes women and individuals who are different within those groups, which empowering conservative, usually male, ‘leaders’.

In contrast, secular politics can bring us together in our common aspect as citizens and be a unifying project. If engagement in that is weakening, it needs to be strengthened.

We need better political and civic education in our schools, outreach and participation drives in every aspect of the state and our political structures, constitutional reform to overhaul all the mechanisms of government and make them more transparent (a written constitution would be a good start).


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