There was recent surprise in some quarters, when London was revealed as the least tolerant place in the UK in terms of LGBT acceptance and premarital sex. But a brief glance at the city’s demographic profile offers a simple explanation. Since Muslim and conservative (mainly West African) Christian immigrants are disproportionally concentrated in the capital, London’s overall lack of tolerance of LGBT rights is unsurprising. A closer inspection of religion in London reveals that church attendance in the capital increased by 16% between 2005 and 2012, fuelled largely by immigration—by contrast with a downward trend in the UK as a whole.
Senior UK Church figures have welcomed the boon to religious attendance from new immigrant communities. Some have even predicted an increase in enthusiasm for religion among the British themselves. In 2015, Cardinal Vincent Nichols stated that recent sharp rises in immigration could help social cohesion, by encouraging the British-born population to rediscover its own “wellsprings of faith.” However, while recent immigrants are likely to remain religious for the foreseeable future, the general trend of secularization and non-observance is unlikely to be reversed.
Despite recent skepticism about the secularization paradigm, like much of western Europe, the UK is becoming increasingly secular. The 1851 Census of Religious Worship revealed roughly 50% of the British population to be regular church goers, while a twenty-first-century study showed that only 7% of English people spend more than ten minutes a week on any sort of religious activity, church attendance included. Clergy numbers have shrunk accordingly: from more than 20,000 Church of England clerics in 1900, to barely 10,000 in 1984.
The theory of “believing without belonging” does not stand up to close inspection either. In 2000, only 26% of Britons believed in a personal god, down from 57% as recently as 1961. In the mainly remote rural Scottish and Welsh areas where religious belief remained strong throughout the twentieth century, secular leisure pastimes failed to take hold, while the Sabbath was strictly observed. Those who strongly believe still mostly belong to the Church of England. UK membership of the fringe new religious movements of the 1970s and 80s, such as the Unification Church (better known as the Moonies), or the Hare Krishnas, who drew on eastern spirituality, barely numbered in the thousands, and did not begin to make up for those leaving mainstream churches in droves. New Age religions and spiritual practices lack cohesion: their inherent individualism and lack of social institutions greatly inhibit their growth and continuity (two thirds of New Agers report that their children do not share their spiritual beliefs). Christian intermarriage also greatly decreases religiosity. Figures for the late twentieth century show that—while parents who actively practice the same faith successfully ensured that 50% of their children became equally observant—children of a mixed Christian marriage, such as an Anglican-Methodist pairing, were only half as likely to take up the religion of either parent. The very tolerance of religious difference may well lead to its general decline.
In this context, it is highly unsurprising that immigration is the cause of the increased church attendance numbers in London. However, religious observance in the capital and in other major English cities could well continue for some time to come. Despite sociological assertions that migrant groups typically integrate almost fully by the third generation (with an attendant decline in religious observance—nearly half of all Scottish Catholics of Irish descent regularly attended mass in the 1950s; by 2016, this had shrunk to under 20%), the huge cultural gap between West Africans—especially Muslims—and earlier large-scale immigrant groups, such as the Irish, may help to buck this trend. Factors such as satellite television and regular cheap flights “home,” which allow African and Asian immigrants to keep one foot in the old world, coupled with marked cultural differences which set them apart from others—for better or worse, the British often bond over large quantities of alcohol—may well serve to maintain the distinctiveness of their cultures.
Furthermore, there is the issue of clustering. Muslims, for example, make up a mere 5% of the UK population, but one third of the London boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets. Likewise, Protestant West Africans tend to congregate in a few large urban centers. While increased female participation in the workplace by immigrant Muslim women will probably result in a certain degree of integration—plus, there is the third of British Muslims who are not religiously active at all—a large degree of “otherness” is likely to remain. Continued religiosity will most likely be a by-product of this.
Indeed, for immigrant groups, religion can often be a form of cultural defense, and create a barrier to further integration. Describing a congregation of Jamaican Pentecostalists in Endless Pressure: A Study of West Indian Life-styles in Bristol, Ken Pryce writes, “If one cannot accept society or be aggressive towards it with a view to reforming it, then one can devalue the significance of this world by withdrawing from it in a community of like-minded individuals.” A 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, meanwhile, showed that, while only 3% of Scots would mind “a great deal” if a close relative married someone of a different religion, a full third of those who felt that way were Muslims. By contrast, Catholics of Irish descent in Scotland are now highly likely to marry out. Since 2012, Scotland has seen more humanist than Catholic weddings.
This leaves the theoretical possibility that religiosity will increase with increases in immigration. While the salad bowl model of multiculturalism, coupled with religious tolerance, provides a boost to the continuation of particular religions, it is also highly likely to ensure the continued “otherness” of the religious in the eyes of mainstream Britain. Religion may well increasingly seen as something “other people” do. Accordingly, it is also unlikely to lead to a reactive enthusiasm for mainstream Christianity. Conservative religious values, such as intolerance of LGBT rights, can be criticized on solely secular grounds, and there is little evidence to suggest that even the disgust at Islamist atrocities like 7/7 has sparked any enthusiasm for Christianity. In Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, Steve Bruce argues that, “People who do not share a common religion lack the necessary prerequisite to think in those terms or to see “becoming Christian” as an appropriate response to any problem, even one with putatively religious roots.” Additionally, a 2007 social attitudes survey showed that 42% of Britons believed religion to be a harmful influence, while only 17% thought it beneficial. While anti-Islamic sentiment is undoubtedly strongest than resentment towards other faiths, it is religion per se of which the British are suspicious. The panicked reaction of passengers on a London train to a man reading from the Bible in 2017 shows the scale of the task facing anyone hoping to institute a mainstream British religious revival.
The lack of positive religious role models is a further barrier. Studies of recruitment to new religious movements have shown the importance of using recruiters from similar backgrounds to the evangelized, since the reception of the message is strongly linked to the plausibility of the messenger. In The Making of a Moonie, Eileen Barker shows that most Moonies were white, middle-class people in their early twenties, initially recruited by other people from that demographic, or by friends. Despite concern over possible brainwashing techniques being used to recruit new members, even anti-cult activist Margaret Singer wrote that the biggest predictor of joining the Unification Church was an existing friendship with a member. In effect, white Britons practicing mainstream Christianity—who are disproportionally likely to be old and female, or from remote rural areas such as the Western Isles or North Wales—are also effectively seen as “alien” by the majority of Brits. A middle-aged man or young woman in a British city or town is unlikely to find a positive religious role model from a similar demographic. Conversion is rare: the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes survey reported that just 5% of people raised without a religion are currently practicing one (this is true of conversion to the Moonies, too: of those who were initially receptive enough to attend a two-day recruitment event in 1979, a mere 10% actually joined). While the British may not be actively hostile to their Christian compatriots, the mere fact that they are “not us” will be sufficient to discourage the great majority from recommitting to their “own” faith.
Immigration has undoubtedly provided a recent boost to religion in urban Britain, but a general increase in religiosity is likely to depend almost solely on further non-European groups entering the country in large numbers: a policy hugely unlikely to be pursued by any prospective government in the current political climate. The essentially alien nature of religion and the religious for the majority of the British will likely ensure a continued attitude of tolerance without enthusiasm. Since the Church of England is losing 1% of worshippers a year due to the deaths of the elderly, the ongoing secularization of Britain is unlikely to be halted in the long term.