Small state with no religion?

One opinion poll is hardly a new cultural epoch, but when a series of polls taken on both sides of the Atlantic over several years tells us that young people in particular are becoming less inclined to believe in God or have a religious identity, then that may signal something important and not just a symptom of growing up. However great my differences with Ann Widdicombe on matters of theology, I had until this past week agreed with her view that the current generation of young people are merely indifferent to religion and religious matters rather than actually hostile, as had been the case with many of the ‘baby boomers’ of an earlier generation. But YouGov in the Sun this week raise a new possibility.

If as many as 41 per cent of British 18-24 year olds accept a proposition like ‘religion is more often the cause of evil in the world’ with only 14 per cent accepting the opposite proposition for good, then much of secular ideology as well as religion itself faces a huge challenge in our society. In particular, the advocates of a small State and low taxes often rely, at least in part, on faith groups and on charities where religious inspiration may be central or at least encourage certain donors, to provide support for those who might be left aside by a shrunken State. Welfare dependency can indeed be a very real problem for those seeking to return to work and good health, and faith groups can seem an independent source of help more sensitive to local and personal problems on the ground. Moreover, all the religions are supposed to stand for moral values conducive to a healthy society. But just at a time when confidence in secular solutions (especially state action) has never been lower, something is going badly wrong with the obvious social alternative to a big State.

It is not hard to think of reasons why younger people, and to a lesser degree the entire population, might be turning downright hostile to religion in 2013. The strife within religious communities themselves on many moral and social issues ranging from gay marriage to taxation cannot be helping. But I guess the international scene is far more destructive. Here feuds long-standing and exposed more sharply by the collapse of officially atheistic communism are now supplemented by a new factor. Even a few years ago many commentators thought Islam was a more united culture than other religions. Now we are learning in the most brutal manner that this belief (or fear in some cases) is quite unfounded. At the same time, the officially Christian West flounders in confusion with the new world disorder. In the 1960s and 1970s many simply thought religious faith outdated or inimical to personal freedoms. Now they may have more dramatic, but also deeper and more solid, reasons for doubting faith. Even those (including myself) unconvinced by the old secularist claim that religion causes wars and tyranny can believe that it fails to prevent them despite the ideals of peace and justice that all religions proclaim.

If we really are experiencing a new decline in religious faith (perhaps including people who haven’t even heard of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens) then small State free market enthusiasts face two choices, both incredibly difficult. One is to get the various conflicts, moral and political alike, which are poisoning relations both within religious communities and between them, resolved and quickly. To say that looks unlikely to be achieved is an understatement. The other path would be to ignore religion altogether and find other secular substitutes for the welfare state in particular. Bearing in mind the importance of patriotism in all its guises for secular history, and the degree to which we already rely on local communities (many lacking resources without state support), that may well be no easier. In the British case a small start might come from abolition of the Church Establishment, but that would do nothing with the main issues. Further, a problem for the New Right may be emerging even in the US with its separation of church and state, and high rates of religious faith. Many people who find much in common at home with others in a multicultural and multifaith setting still have the entire international scene to worry them. I suggest the Institute of Economic Affairs, the American Enterprise Institute, and all their various sympathisers, think again – fast.

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