Faith survey reveals a nation in doubt

A major study examining British attitudes to religion has found most people deeply uncertain in their own beliefs. Is doubt the enemy of faith — or its essential companion?

Christians make up 59% of the British population and Muslims 5%. A quarter of Britons have no faith, while the remainder are mostly Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. According to the 2011 census, completed by almost every member of the population, this is the state of faith in Britain today.

It sounds straightforward enough. But, according to a major new study from the University of Essex, the truth is far more knotty. The researchers interviewed 9,000 British people in their 40s. And rather than simply asking respondents to identify their religion, the survey delved deeper into their attitudes towards God and faith.

Intriguingly the survey found a significant gender divide: 54% of men identified themselves as either atheists or agnostics, compared with only 34% of women. But perhaps even more revealing was the number of people whose religious identity was riddled with complexity.

Just 15% of the adults surveyed were actively and straightforwardly religious. Another 28% held no religious convictions at all. The rest — representing over half the population — did not fit neatly into either camp. Some believed in God but did not practice religion. Others identified with a particular religion but had no faith. Around a fifth of the respondents believed in either God or the afterlife but not both.

Even among believers, it seems that doubt is common. Only 13% of Anglicans and 33% of Catholics were confident of God’s existence. Only Muslims seemed generally sure in their faith, with just 16 of the 88 surveyed expressing any uncertainty. In short, religion in modern Britain is a tangle of ambiguity and complication.

This tendency to doubt reaches all the way up the hierarchies of British religious life: last year, the leader of the Church of England admitted that even he had moments of uncertainty. But does uncertainty necessarily signify confusion?

We of little faith?

By definition, faith is the absolute and heartfelt conviction that something unprovable is true. Some argue that this makes faith incompatible with doubt: to truly believe in something as important as God is to give your whole being to that belief, they say. As the Bible says: ‘One who doubts is like a wave on the sea that is driven and tossed by winds.’

Yet doubt has always been a part of faith. Jesus questioned God while he was hanging from the cross, while Muhammad’s first thought after receiving God’s wisdom was that he had been possessed by a demon. In fact, many thinkers throughout the centuries have claimed that doubt is a vital component of religion. Faith is only possible when we do not know, the argument goes; it is not serene certainty but a constant struggle with impenetrable mysteries.

You Decide

  1. Is faith compatible with doubt?
  2. How would you describe your religion in one word? How would you describe it in 50? Is there a big difference between the two?

Activities

  1. Think of one thing you have faith in (it doesn’t have to be religious) and share your answer with the rest of the class. What does that faith mean to you?
  2. Choose two religions and compare the attitudes they have to faith and doubt.

Some People Say...

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Martin Luther King

What do you think?

Q & A

What if I’m one of those people who’s just not religious at all?
The question of doubt is important whether you are religious or not. Most scientists accept that there are mysteries in the universe that human reason can never penetrate. Even Richard Dawkins, the most famously outspoken atheist in the world, does not profess any absolute certainty about the non-existence of God.
But isn’t it possible to have too much doubt?
Perhaps it’s true that too much self-questioning can just be crippling. But too much certainty can be downright dangerous. People who believe absolutely in their own righteousness are often capable of committing great sins in the name of what they see as the truth.

Word Watch

Census
A survey of a nation’s population carried out on a regular basis — in Britain, every ten years since 1801. Censuses were initially conducted for tax purposes, but now they are also used to gather information about changing identities.
In their 40s
The survey was part of a cohort study, which follows a defined group of people over a long period of time and tracks the changes that occur. Hence the similar ages of the participants.
Atheists
People who don’t believe in God — from the Greek for ‘without God’.
Agnostics
People who believe that it is impossible to know anything about the fundamental forces of the universe (including God). From the Greek for ‘unknowable’.
Questioned God
The Biblical Book of Matthew records that as Jesus was being crucified he cried out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Theologians still debate the meaning of these words.
Demon
This is reported not in the Koran but in several early biographies of Muhammad. It was a common belief in Muhammad’s time that demons were responsible for inspiring fantastical imaginings — including poetry.

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