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Religion and the next generation

Religion and the next generation

This is the tenth in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here

What is the future of religion in Britain?  This is a question very much of our time but not easily answered.  Events in recent years have shown that social institutions of all sorts are subject to rapid and unexpected change.  Yet insofar as the future is shaped by the present, a hint of what might lie ahead can perhaps be found in the attitudes of teenagers and young adults towards religion today. 

My research in this area suggests that central to the world view of ‘Generation Y’ (those born between 1980 and 2000) is relationships, particularly with family and friends.  Belonging and being connected to others is seen to be at the heart of what it is to be happy, and being happy is the life-goal young people say they aim for.  Religion generally does not feature strongly in this world view nor, indeed, in young people’s relationships. Religion is regarded as a personal choice; something to be respected so long as it is not imposed on people.  Religious beliefs and practices are points of curiosity from time to time but do not routinely come up for discussion in young people’s conversations.  Teens and young adults see value in the potential of religion to inform ethical behaviour, but they tend to reject those aspects of religious teaching which they find to be at odds with their own individual morality and wider social mores.  Privately, religious identities, beliefs and practices (often loosely connected with family traditions) linger on, but they are not consciously held in mind until called upon to mark or manage an experience (for example, praying when in trouble or thinking about heaven at times of death). 

Given that religion does not feature very much in their everyday lives, many young people in Britain are largely indifferent to it.  They are not hostile to religion (after all, each to their own) but neither do they particularly engage with it, nor have a reason to do so since relationships, rather than religion, are their main source of meaning.  This attitude to religion would seem to characterize the majority of young people: Data from the 2011 Census for England and Wales indicates that just under half of 16 to 24 year olds identify themselves as Christian, but other surveys suggest only nominally so, since few participate in a worshipping community. Around 10% of late teens and early twenties identify with other faith traditions but again not all are practicing.  On the other hand, the number of people who self-identify as ‘no religion’ is growing and just over a third of 16-24 year olds see themselves in this way. 

Whilst indifference may be the majority view, there is a minority of young people for whom religion does constitute an important part of identity. For these young people, beliefs are sincerely held and consciously practiced as a matter of personal choice and commitment. Authenticity is a key value in Generation Y’s world view, and religious forms that engage young people emotionally as well as intellectually, that develop a strong sense of connection to the ‘Other’, that foster supportive relationships with like-minded peers, and which bestow a strong sense of purpose are attractive to those young people who are looking beyond their immediate social world for meaning. 

These two approaches to religion apparent amongst British young people suggest a future that may not be so very different to the present – a religiously indifferent majority existing alongside a religiously engaged minority or, more accurately, minorities since religious groups are increasingly diverse in Britain. It is unlikely that the majority will become more religious since there is little motivation to do so, but lingering religious identities and practices and a general lack of hostility towards religion, means that the majority will be slow to become less religious too. 

Religiously active minorities with an authentic sense of faith are not easily dissuaded from their positions either and, as such, they keep traditions alive.  A sustainable future for religion will depend in part on religious institutions recognizing and fostering such a sense of authenticity amongst religiously minded young people.  This will involve finding ways to pass on historical expressions of faith but also paying heed to the things which matter to Generation Y – relationships and belonging, social justice, personal freedoms and wellbeing – so that religious beliefs and practices are understood to count for something worthwhile.  Needless to say, a sustainable future for religion will also depend on balances and accommodations continuing to be successfully negotiated between the needs of different religious minorities and the views of a religiously indifferent majority.

Dr Sylvia Collins-Mayo is Associate Professor in Sociology at Kingston University, London, and co-editor of Religion and Youth (Ashgate, 2010)

Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.



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