Research published by Professor Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, London, reveals that a large proportion of 16–29 year olds across 22 countries identify as having ‘no religion’.
Exact percentages vary greatly – 83% of young people in Poland identify as Christian, 98% in Israel belong to non–Christian religious groups and 91% in the Czech Republic have no religion. However, out of the 22 countries studied, young people self–identifying with a religion are the majority in 8 and the minority in 14. The UK is evidence of the latter; 30% of young people here are religious (22% Christian and 8% non–Christian) and 70% are non–religious, according to Bullivant’s statistics.
In recent weeks these figures have captured the attention of UK national news–media. Articles outlined findings from this ‘new shock study‘ and used them to describe a ‘widespread rejection of Christianity‘ among British young people who are ‘turn[ing] away‘ from and ‘untouched by‘ religion in a modern society that is ‘march[ing] towards‘ post–Christianity.
However, when read in the context of wider research in this area it becomes clear that such statements are inaccurate.
First of all, statistics revealing low levels of religiosity among young people are nothing new. Last year, research by Professor Linda Woodhead revealed that British ‘nones’ (those identifying as non–religious) tend to be younger rather than older – 60% of those aged 18–24 identified as non–religious and 30% identified as Christian whereas 34% of those aged 60+ identified as non–religious and 60% identified as Christian. These findings are preceded by multiple academic studies revealing low levels of religious affiliation, belief and practice among young people – in 2010 one project described ‘teenagers and young adults [as] the least churched age group in Britain’. 
Secondly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that young people are rejecting religion. Bullivant is hesitant to provide commentary on his data: 'Our intention here is simply to present the relevant statistics in as clear and interesting way as possible, without venturing to hypothesize as to why they are as they are.'
The media does offer an interpretation but their portrayal of young people ‘rejecting’ or ‘turning away’ from religion as part of a ‘march towards’ post–Christianity is problematic. For one thing it presents youth religiosity as a monolithic, homogenous entity and fails to recognise that though there may be a non–religious majority, the proportion of young people identifying as religious is not negligible.
Some churches seem to be engaging with large numbers of young people; charismatic churches such as !Audacious in Manchester, LIFE Church, Bradford and Hillsong, London, all boast thriving youth ministries attracting thousands of young people to their explicitly Christian annual youth conferences. Soul Survivor also pulls in large crowds. It’s debatable whether attendance is evidence of personal interest in religion but nevertheless, it seems largely inconsistent with a narrative of widespread ‘rejection’ and ‘turning away’ from religion.
This narrative is further challenged by the fact that most ‘nones’ were never religious in the first place. Only 1 in 5 non–religious young people in Bullivant’s sample were ‘nonverts’ – that is, converted from identifying as religious to non–religious. The rest had never belonged to a religion in their lives. Similar findings have been reported elsewhere.
This doesn’t appear to be a rejection of religion, then, so much as a failure to engage with it at all. In fact, even the choice to not engage isn’t really a ‘rejection’. Studies investigating non–religious individuals’ attitudes reveal that they are largely indifferent towards religion. Woodhead’s nones generally perceived the church as a neither positive nor negative force in society, they paid very little attention to religious leaders – though they accepted their right to speak out on certain topics – and only a minority were convinced atheists.
Verbs such as ‘reject’ and ‘turn away’ paint youth attitudes to religion with a finality and a hostility that, according to academic research, isn’t there for the most–part. Moreover, regardless of attitudes towards traditional or institutional religion, research (including some published at Theos) indicates that young people are open to matters of spirituality such as miracles, healing prayer and the power of spiritual forces to influence life on earth; ‘being non–religious does not mean being faithless or even 'non–spiritual’.
Clearly, youth religiosity is complex. An image of the world’s young people collectively marching away from religion is dramatic, and in terms of selling newspapers its appeal is obvious. It is also unhelpfully inaccurate. There is no universal youth response or attitude towards religion or belief. Any intimation otherwise is simplistic bordering on patronizing, putting words in young people’s mouths instead of listening to them.
No doubt some do actively reject religion, but there are many who don’t hold such strong views and some who actively engage with it. Bullivant’s statistics have the potential to shape how religious groups – and wider society – perceive and engage with young people and as a result, we need to interpret them accurately. The media’s proclamations that they are ‘shock new’ results evidencing that young people are uniformly ‘rejecting’ or ‘turning away from’ religion and ‘marching towards’ a post–Christian society implies that in order to survive, religious groups must focus efforts on preventing young people from leaving. However, if we understand the data in the context of wider academic discussion it seems that a more effective response would involve efforts to get them engaged in the first place.
1. Giselle Vincett and Sylvia Collins–Mayo, ‘(Dis)engagements with Christianity amongst young people in England and Scotland’, Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion: Volume 1: Youth and Religion, ed. Giuseppe Giordan, (2010), pp. 219 – 249 (p. 226).
This blog was first published at the Theos website on 6th April 2018.