The Role of Religion in 21st Century Britain: The Preaching and the Practice

Tony Blair recently attempted his comeback to UK public life appearing at the Westminster Faith debates together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other top UK religious leaders in attendance. Since Blair now does “do” religion after all, we learned that while he made his staffers (religious or not) pray with Salvation Army lobbyists, he apparently did not pray with George W. Bush over the Iraq War.

Whether they did or not, the religious affinity between the two men apparent only now gives a whole new meaning to the UK’s special relationship with the USA. When walking in Memphis, as the song says, a stranger might ask you whether or not you are a Christian child, or you might be invited to say the grace at dinner (in London it would already cause alarm to be talked to by a stranger at all). There is an unquestioning and unselfconscious assumption among many Americans that the unwitting visitor belongs to the same particular brand of religion, or indeed to any faith. Conversely it amazes many Europeans that the outlandish beliefs of a Tom Cruise or Mitt Romney have done little to diminish their public credibility stateside. All this is particularly odd if you associate any Evangelical outlook, so ubiquitous in America, as anathema to the kind of enquiring mindset that creates the wonders of modern technology culminating in the iPad.

American faith has not waned over the last 40 or so years. In surveys between and half and two-thirds of Americans confess to be “highly religious” or that religion is “very important” in their lives, twice as many as Germans. Between 40 and 85% of Swedes are estimated to be non-religious. In Europe religion creates much greater public controversy. Here, debates rage within religions, for instance over gay marriage and the ordination of women priests, and between them, such as the banning of the Muslim veil in France or the extension of Sharia law demanded for certain communities. The late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have led the atheist charge against what they see as the increasing encroachment of religion into public life. Religion is also a fault line of an international “clash of cultures” between countries and regions of the different major religions.

Who are the religious?

All these issues raise important questions about the role of religion and religious people in public life of 21st century Britain which the Westminster faith debates intended to address. The final installment was co-organised by Blair’s own Faith Foundation and the Religion & Society programme of government-funded research into religion and public life. Does social science have anything new to say about religion that justifies public expense? It turns out that it does, and what it says is surprising. In one of the many research projects of the programme, we used a combination of tools from psychology and economics to look at the effect of people’s individual religion on their social behaviour.

A basic scene-setting issue concerns who the religious are. It may seem to religious people themselves that the grasping of a universal truth, like gravity, should not discriminate between individuals or societies. However, the vastly different role religion plays in the lives of different countries and different kinds of people suggests systematic social and psychological factors at work. Is there such a thing as a particular religious personality? Unsurprisingly, upbringing and education play an important part. We also know that women are more religious in most respects that researchers have looked at. The classic major personality traits are only weakly linked to religiosity. However, at more specific levels, there is evidence that more religious people generally are more suggestible and and conforming, especially to authority, and less individualistic. The more religious also have a stronger sense of guilt and lower self-esteem, tend to be less creative and score less well on standard IQ as well as school tests. Despite common misconceptions, successful scientists are generally less likely to be religious. Three-quarters of members of the elite U.S. National Academy of Sciences have a personal disbelief in God, up from one half at the beginning of the 20th century. Albert Einstein, despite the much-touted quote about God not playing dice, was not religious in any standard conception. On political matters, religious people tend to be more conservative, right-wing, ethnocentric and prejudiced. There is even mounting evidence of a “religious gene” that some people have and some do not.

Do they practice what they preach or walk nowhere among the gentiles?

This somewhat unflattering and perhaps unkind portrait of the typical religious person is blurred by difficulties in accurately measuring religiosity, which is a surprisingly multi-faceted concept. A key distinction is between the devout for social reasons and those seeking genuine spiritual enlightenment. There is also the fact that the relationship between religion and attitudinal characteristics has a chicken-and-egg quality to it. Psychologists measure the strength of someone’s religious sentiment by a battery of questions about what and how strongly they believe, the impact of religion on everyday life and the frequency and intensity of religious practice. Despite the tricky issues, we do have sophisticated means of establishing how reliable measures are and tend to discard or improve those that are not. The religiosity measures psychologists have developed work well and suggest, when tested on their academic peers, that engineers are among the most religious academics; psychologists themselves are among the least (in this study, philosophers couldn’t understand or answer the questions).

If we accept these measurements of religiosity, they present a way of assessing one potential role of religion in public life, i.e. whether religious people are in some social sense “better” than others. This involves another hurdle for the scientist, which is to measure pro-social or ethical behaviour in real people and without somehow alerting them to what we’re interested in. Such suspicions can make people self-conscious, trying to please the person asking the questions or satisfying a positive self image. Our own research as part of the Religion & Society programme involved different “games” where people make decisions to allocate real money between themselves and others. People’s financial decisions are a good indicator of how much they care about themselves compared to others, and how much risk and trust they are willing to expose themselves to. Such decisions also reflect real behaviour as everyone gets to keep the money allocated. Subjects in these experiments “put their money where their mouth is”.

An example is the “trust game”. The first person gets £10 and can send any part to another (who they do not see or know). What they sent is tripled before the second person receives it, who then sends any part of it back. Each player gets the max if everything is sent and half returned. But because the second person has no reason to send anything back, the first one should keep everything. The game measures trust in how much the first person sends, and trustworthiness in how much the second one returns. Trust is a key lubricant of social and economic life; hardly an interaction works well without it.

What do we learn from experiments with this game and others about the social behaviour of religious people? The evidence is sobering. A whole host of studies including our own show that more religious people are no more altruistic, honest or cooperative towards others, do not trust more and are no more trustworthy if trust is invested in them. For example, we found repeatedly that more religious people do not send more nor return more in the trust game. One might object that religion doesn’t necessarily imply trust or cooperation; some religious teachings warn about the inherent sinfulness of man or guard against people of other faiths. We might also suspect that religious charity takes place mainly inside the confines of religious communities. Perhaps, as Christians often point out, faith involves the aspiration to good rather than an unfaltering adherence to it. On the other hand, it seems that the charity in “love thy neighbor” and “turning the other cheek” should have some impact on the devotee’s everyday behaviour that can be detected either in this game or others. There is no evidence that they do. The role of religion is public life is therefore unlikely to come from instilling more pro-social behaviour.

These games can also be used to examine what happens when religious people knowingly interact with others of a different or of no faith. Suddenly a person’s religiosity starts to explain their behaviour. We find that religious people are indeed more trusting and trustworthy when the other person in the game is also religious or of the same religion. This is true not just for Christians; we played the same games with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the UK and other countries and made the same finding. Religion does not seem to affect what people do in general terms, but how they relate to others. In social psychology, this is called the intergroup effect: people tend to be more social towards others in their “ingroup” in terms of nationality, language, ethnicity or, in some experiments, completely arbitrary and manufactured commonalities. Religious denomination and even the level of religiosity seem to join the long list of factors that divide people and group them into tribes. There are echoes of this in a statement made by Tony Blair at the Religion & Society debate: “I find a connection with people who are of faith, even though they’re of a different faith to my own, precisely because there is a certain space, philosophically and emotionally, you can congregate around.” Presumably like George W. Bush.

The role of religion in public life

A large part of the public debate over religion between atheists and religious people has focused on theological arguments about the existence of God and the relationship between science and religion. This is a blind alley for those worried about the increasing encroachment of religion in public life. In contrast to agnosticism, simplistic atheism is no more compatible with scientific reasoning that evangelical religion. But it’s also missing the point of faith. If there were scientific certainty, there would be no need for belief. No one “believes” in gravity. In that sense, atheists are believers of another kind and their fervor is open to almost the same criticism leveled against evangelicals.

The Westminster faith debates and the Religion & Society programme put a slightly different but timely accent on the public role of religion in 21st century British society. The findings of psychologists and economists illustrate why religion is not (only) a matter of deliberate choice or scientific truth: people are religious or atheistic for a number of reasons other than theology such as personal circumstances, background or even the accident of genetic predisposition. This partly explains the continuing survival of faith in the age of science and technology: some people happen to have it, some need it or find it helpful. This cautions all participants in the increasingly acrimonious discourse to exercise humility and empathy.

But this argument against the atheists’ fervor also gives legitimacy to their worries about the role of religion on public life. Many people do not need to or cannot create belief where there is a vacuum of scientific fact. For many it is unthinkable to voluntarily base one’s lifestyle and most important decisions on speculation about the unknowable. Whether or not the human capacity for religious sentiment and solace should be considered a blessing is a mute point. The intimately personal side to religious belief provides a natural limit to the legitimacy of promoting it through state institutions. Precisely because some of us are almost accidentally religious, others are not so and cannot be. Even more so for the creed some people happen to be part of. For this reason those of no belief have every reason to demand religion not become in any way an officially-endorsed part of our national institutions.

This is true especially in view of the finding in our studies that religious creed and even religiosity can be divisive forces towards social segmentation. We need to guard against religion being misused as a vehicle to support the natural human tendency to form tribes. The debates over of the role of religion are not helping here through drawing false dichotomies. At the debate, Tony Blair and Rowan Williams were asked whether or not Islam is a religion of peace. You don’t have to be a scientist to point out that this depends on which Islam is meant here. Likewise, for some you are a “Christian child” only if you believe a donkey can be made to talk or that after the crucifixion, the dead saints arose from their graves and walked, three days later, to Jerusalem. However if you concede literal truth in the bible then it’s not clear at which incredible passage the liberty of interpretation must stop to still be a Christian. Pretending there is a single, monolithic Islam or Christianity (even just in the present day) is unhelpful and wrong. For any religion, the interpretations and practices abound in such a way as to make the question nonsensical. Every religion is multi-faceted in terms of different articles of faith or levels of practice and experience such that it is impossible to make an indisputable classification. The same is true more generally for belief in God. All the more reason to make personal faith a private matter and leave to Caesar (only) what is in Caesar’s rightful domain. As Frederic II, the self-declared first servant of his own state of Prussia proclaimed in the 18th century, let everyone be blessed after their own fashion.

A longer account of the research findings behind the opinions expressed here is contained in the author’s article “The Experimental Economics of Religion” in The Journal of Economic Surveys published by Blackwell.

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