Georgia L Gilholy is a journalist.
Of the week-long Jewish festival of Succot, in which Jews eat and may sleep in temporary huts in commemoration of the Israelites years of wandering in the desert, the late Jonathan Sacks wrote:
“I think of my ancestors and their wanderings across Europe in search of safety, and I begin to understand how faith was their only home. It was fragile, chillingly exposed to the storms of prejudice and hate. But it proved stronger than superpowers and outlived them all.”
Surely even the most dyed-in-the-wool Dawkins devotee should admit the obvious fact that religion has, is, and will continue to be an irreplaceable pillar of human civilization. In some cases for good, in others for ill.
All faiths, whether or not we subscribe to them, undoubtedly provide overarching systems of values with tremendous implications. They promote encounters with transcendence and history. They can also provide, as the obviously did for the late Chief Rabbi, a psychological and social safety net desperately lacking in an atomised world.
Today’s chattering classes are, in contrast to their equivalents throughout the rest of human history, uninterested. Christianity especially, and often Judaism too, are perceived as fusty old curiosities, or fundamentalisms to be ridiculed and silenced.
Other faiths are poorly understood. The impact of all of them on British society is generally ignored, beyond the odd think piece about how faith schools must be abolished and the free expression of pro-life activists silenced because, after all, it is the “current year”.
This is particularly true when it comes to confronting our past. How can one accurately study the transatlantic slave trade and its defenders and retractors, for example, without grappling with the ancient doctrine of “natural slaves”? The evangelism of the abolitionist Clapham Sect? The Catholic scholasticism that underpinned the debates of sixteenth-century Spain?
We inhabit an impoverished media landscape marked by outrageous soundbites and ahistorical canards, as much as regards the present as the past.
It is not surprising that so many Brits are now clueless about important religious issues. The 2021 Census found that over the last twenty years, the number of self-identified Christians in England and Wales has dropped by over 25 percentage points, and those who actively participate in religious observance will undoubtedly be much lower.
Further confirming the rapid secularisation of the mainstream, “No religion” was the second most common response, rocketing from 25.2 per cent in 2011 to almost 40 per cent.
However, non-Christian groups have risen, while immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa have begun refilling pews in many towns and cities. Many, if not a majority, of Gen Z are seeking out something bigger than themselves, whether that be through astrology and so-called wellness trends or reversion to traditional religion.
As Dr Rakib Ehsan, senior research associate for the newly launched Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life (IIFL), explains:
“This changing portrait of Britain, and England especially – calls for a mature understanding of the value and power of faith in an advanced diverse society. What has been needed for some time is a professional outfit in the British research community that is genuinely focused on cultivating a shared and wholesome appreciation of faith and spirituality.”
Dr Ehsan also offers examples of where further research is sorely needed. Take Britain’s Sunni-majority Pakistani- and Bangladeshi-heritage ethnic groups, “traditionally known to be relatively deprived” but who are now on average, achieving higher academic scores than their white British peers.
He, and the rest of society, are right to be curious as to whether these communities’ high rates of religious participation might play a part in facilitating academic progress and social mobility. The same goes for scores of questions surrounding marriage, families, and education, along with economic and social satisfaction.
These are areas which many contemporary researchers, politicians and journalists seem uninterested in, preferring to rant about how irredeemably evil and parochial Britain is and has always been, rather than probing examples of development and integration across a complex network of ethnic, religious and social groups in order to plan concrete steps toward a better Britain for all.
Of course, it is not all sunshine and roses; an understanding of faith is also crucial for addressing national security issues. Despite the growing presence of far-right ideologies, who themselves may have a complex relationship with paganism or Christianity, Islamist extremism remains the dominant terror threat in the United Kingdom.
Recent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, Islamist antisemitism, and unrest between African and Asian communities in South London are just a few recent cases in which the British authorities and commentariat have often proved themselves unable or unwilling to understand the tensions multiculturalism may bring with it, nor put forward legal and cultural routes toward change.
An organisation like IIFL has been a long time coming. As Paul A Marshall stressed in his celebrated 2009 book, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion:
“Good journalism should be concerned with all of life, including our nationality, our professions, the places we live, and the interests that engage us. But journalism is radically incomplete without also covering the creeds we hold about the cosmos in which we live.”
Policymakers and academia ought to heed the same advice.