Hannah Rich challenges the tidy labelling of the ‘religious’ by social scientists and explores the relation between faith and social action.
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Research released recently by Tearfund and ComRes found that half of adults in the UK pray occasionally. One in five say they pray at least once a month. For some, this may seem a surprising finding at a time when the religious ‘nones’ – those with no religious affiliation – are a growing proportion of the UK population. According to the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey, 49% of the UK public identify themselves within this group. However, the research found that 20% of ‘nones’ say they pray occasionally, despite acknowledging no religious belief, with ‘family’ being the most common theme they pray about. Furthermore, 1 in 10 ‘nones’ say they pray particularly in times of crisis.
The relationship between faith, spirituality and religious practice is less neatly defined than the categories of social science would sometimes have us believe. There is a role, therefore, for church–based community projects as spaces which facilitate conversation rather than tidy labelling.
Spiritual beliefs and their outworking, whether expressed through regular attendance, occasional prayer or participating in social action, are more nuanced than is captured by the binary choice between believer and non–believer, or Christian and atheist. While it is helpful and necessary for the purposes of good data to be able to fit people into a series of boxes according to their religious affiliation, the reality is far more complex.
Choosing to call yourself a person of faith does not entail subscribing to every tenet of a particular religion, let alone selecting the ‘at least once a day’ box with respect to every possible religious activity. Neither, of course, does describing yourself as an agnostic or atheist negate the possibility that you might pray, even to a God you are not sure exists. Faith in a God who listens is there to turn to in a time of crisis, despite the intellectual baggage religion may hold at other times.
A 2016 report by New Philanthropy Capital, What a Difference a Faith Makes, found that people made a similar distinction between religion and faith when it comes to volunteering with faith–based charities. People said that social action enabled them to put their faith into practice without some of the associations or objections they may hold about religious institutions.
As with those who identify as ‘nones’ but still turn to prayer in a crisis, churches strive to be places where needs are met, irrespective of whether people turn to faith or religion at any other point. Those who never otherwise go to church might still spend every Thursday morning at a parent and toddler group, for example. In this way, people come into contact with a dimension of the church which meets them where they are and engages in conversations beginning with what they need, not what they do or don’t believe.
Social science surveys will always have a challenge to capture the nuance of human spirituality. But effective social action can be an opportunity to break down preconceptions and boxes into which almost no one fits perfectly, and to enable more human encounters which recognise that our beliefs, like ourselves, are often messy and changeable.