Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Young people reject religion: society somehow survives

Some evidence has emerged to test the Chief Rabbi's hypothesis that a society without religion is doomed to moral and social collapse. "You cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact."

A new YouGov poll confirms that religion among the younger generation is in headlong retreat. A mere 25% said that they believed in God. A further 19% said that they believed in a "greater spiritual power", while a full 38% now claim to have no religious or spiritual beliefs at all. The remainder were agnostic. Essentially, then, this is a non-believing generation. 10% said that they attendend religious services at least once a month (this is quite close to the long-term average for the population as a whole), but the majority (56%) said that they never went. In perhaps the most significant rebuff to traditional religion, 41% thought that it was the cause of more harm than good in the world. Only 14% (a considerably smaller figure than that for belief in God) thought that religion was, on balance, a good thing.

So much for Dr Sacks' contention that Dawkins et al have failed to get their message across.

Has this absence of religious faith produced a generation of shallow hedonists or depressed, angst-ridden nihilists, as the Chief Rabbi would presumably expect? Not a bit of it. For the survey confirmed that young people today are in most respects more levelheaded and conventional (if somewhat more selfish) than their predecessors. Two thirds looked forward to marriage and children. No fewer than 70% expected (perhaps over-optimistically) to one day own their own home. Slightly more than half thought that "the traditional role of the family" had declined in modern Britain. 30% thought this was a bad thing, but almost a quarter disagreed that the family was in trouble at all. In other words, a clear majority expressed approval for traditional family structures. (They also expressed fairly negative feelings about immigrants and benefit claimants.)

The Chief Rabbi might want to take comfort from these findings. Society is evidently not collapsing for want of religious practice and belief. As for non-believers who hope that a decline in religion would lead to a radically new type of society, they are probably wrong too. There was very strong support for same-sex marriage among young people, confirming that this particular argument, though not quite over, is largely settled in the long term. But even that, scandalous as it remains to religious traditionalists, is essentially a conservative idea: at root, it is about assimilating gay relationships to a traditional monogamous norm (a less tendentious way of putting this is to say that gay people are just as conventional as everyone else).

Religion isn't a necessary conduit for traditional values, it seems. Communal norms can just as effectively be transmitted in other ways: through families, in schools, in the media and through social networks. Perhaps earlier societies did need religion to keep people on the straight and narrow. Modern society may have alighted upon other, more effective methods.