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To ‘do London’, you really need to ‘do God’

To ‘do London’, you really need to ‘do God’

Natan Mladin introduces our latest report ‘Religious London’. 24/06/2020

I snapped the picture above in a tube station just before lockdown. Squint a little and you can read an ebullient and idiosyncratic list of reasons to visit London:

Let’s do shopping ‘til you drop. Let’s do market stalls and antique trawls. Let’s do the mother of parliaments. Let’s do bouncing down the Thames.

And on it goes. The call at the end sums it all up: Let’s do LONDON.

The ad tries to capture the diversity of experiences available in one of the most vibrant capitals of the world, and to distil something of its essence. It talks a good game. But there is at least one thing missing from the list: ‘Let’s do God – Let’s do LONDON.’

Bizarre imposition? Not according to our latest report, Religious London and its key finding, namely that London is the most religious place in Britain. No less than 62% of Londoners identify as religious, compared to 53% in the rest of Britain. This is likely driven by immigration and diaspora communities, but it is still significant. Religious Londoners are also more observant than people outside the capital (excl. NI). 38% of Londoners, for example, pray regularly, compared to 13% in Britain. Prior to lockdown, 38% of Christians in London attended a service at least once a month, compared to 17% nationally. And while there is a perception that religion is an old peoples' interest, London’s religious are just as young and ethnically diverse as London’s population as a whole. For instance, while in our data 58% of the population as a whole are under 45, 67% of practicing Christians and 71% of those who identify with another religion are under 45. And while 41% of the city as a whole is black, Asian and minority ethnic , 49% of practicing Christians and 79% of those that identify with other religions are black, Asian and minority ethnic.

However, it would be disingenuous to claim the data shows London in the middle of a religious revival; with only 30% of Londoners actively practicing their faith, this is not the case. But these numbers do challenge one of the lazy assumptions about the capital: that it is a secular city. It manifestly is not. It is, as expected, very socially liberal on the whole, but consistently less liberal than the rest of Britain. For example, Londoners are nearly twice as likely as respondents in the rest of Britain to say that sex before marriage is at least sometimes wrong (24% vs 13%). On assisted suicide, 38% of Londoners think this is at least sometimes wrong, compared to 27% in Britain. This is very likely a religious effect.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth mentioning that we gathered the data for our project before the pandemic turned the world upside down. A few weeks ago, however, we put out a few polling questions to check whether our findings still held up. To our relief, they did. We found no significant shifts that would alter our argument. In Covid times, London remains the most religious and spiritually vibrant place in Britain.

As for the future, who can really know? If the Muslim population continues to grow at the rate at which it has in the last 15 years (from 700,000 in 2004 to 1.2 million in 2018, according to Labour Force Survey data) and/or Christianity sees a reversal of its decline relative to London’s population growth, the capital’s future may be a religious one. However, the group currently growing the fastest in London are religious ‘nones’. If disaffiliation continues, London’s future will be less religious than it is now. If only we could look into a crystal ball. Fortunately, the immediate future is clearer.

COVID-19 has changed our world in ways we are just beginning to understand. The return of the state is perhaps one of the most striking shifts introduced by the pandemic. Previously withdrawn, the hands of the state are now deep into the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. Huge amounts of money have been pumped straight onto the balance sheets of businesses and charities; other forms of help have also been extended. But practically, this cannot, and should not last for ever.

So when national and local government gradually vacate the space occupied during the peak of the crisis, civil society will have to step in again. It will take a collective effort and a generous spirit of partnership to help see out the long tail of the pandemic and its bleak ramifications - soaring unemployment, over-indebtedness, worsening mental health, to name just a few. In this context, public bodies will need to see religious groups as assets and partners in community service. As previous years have shown, religious groups are ready to stand in the gap. They are part of the solution in all parts of the country, but even more so in London. As our report shows, religious Londoners tend to be more neighbourly and civically engaged that their non-religious counterparts. Nearly half of Christians (49%) and 53% of religious Londoners of a different faith are likely to volunteer in their local areas, compared to only 40% of London ‘nones’. Though interestingly, over 40% of religious Londoners feel governments have passed legislation that makes life more difficult for people with their beliefs, suggesting that they often experience a sense of marginalisation.

After surveying the religious demography in London, probing the values profile of Londoners, and examining the relationship between public bodies and religious institutions, our report ends with a series of recommendations. In essence, we call for two main things: political leaders must ‘do God’, or at least ‘do’ religious institutions, engaging, supporting, and seeing them as assets in the city. Similarly, religious leaders and communities should ‘do’ politics, developing and joining networks for collaboration around social action and the common good, and where new or diaspora communities can be seen and engage. 

With lockdown gradually lifting and the ravages of the pandemic becoming clearer, the task of nurturing the common life of this great city, particularly in its most deprived communities, is more urgent than ever. ‘Religious London’ has an important part to play.

Religious London is available for download here.


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Nathan Mladin

Nathan Mladin

Nathan is Senior Researcher and Relationship Manager at Theos. He holds an MTh and PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of several Theos publications, including ‘Religious London: Faith in a Global City’ (with Paul Bickley), ‘Forgive Us Our Debts: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter’ (with Barbara Ridpath), and a chapter on Václav Havel in ‘The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God’ (Biteback, 2017).

Posted 24 June 2020

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