Embargoed until 00:01 Sunday 8 April 2012

Demos: Religious most likely to identify as on the left

People who identify with a faith – even if they are not actively practising – are more likely to volunteer, be politically engaged and be active citizens in their neighbourhoods, according to new analysis by the think tank Demos. People who identify with a religion were also more inclined to take progressive positions on a range of issues including immigration and economic equality.

Far from the associations of conservative tendencies with religious groups, a report published today by Demos finds that those belonging to a religious organisation in the UK are:

  • More likely to place themselves on the left side of the political spectrum (55 per cent on the left compared to 40 per cent on the right)
  • More likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts (41 per cent of religious respondents prioritise equality over freedom compared to 36 per cent of non-religious respondents)
  • Less likely to have a negative association towards living next door to immigrants (11 per cent of religious people do not want to live next to immigrants compared to 16 per cent of non-religious people)
  • More likely to say that those on benefits should have to take a job, rather than be able to refuse to work (76 per cent religious say they should take a job compared to 73 per cent non-religious.)

New analysis of the European Values Study also suggests that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to be politically engaged.  Across Europe, those who belong to a religious organisation were more likely to say that they were very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and participated in a lawful demonstration.  In the UK, those belonging to religious organisations were more likely to have attended a lawful demonstration (20 per cent) than those who do not belong to a religious organisation (14 per cent).

Across Western Europe, those belonging to a religious organisation were more likely to volunteer for: 

  • Political parties
  • Local community action
  • Development and human rights issues
  • Environmental issues
  • Youth work
  • Women’s issues. 

According to the most recent wave of the UK Citizenship Survey, 78 per cent of Britons describe themselves as having a religious affiliation and 37 per cent describe themselves as practicing their religion. But British religiosity appears to have declined, with nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of 18-24 year olds not belonging to a religion, compared with under one third (28 per cent) of Britons aged 65 and over.

The report also distinguishes religious ‘pluralists’ (who believe that other religions may hold some truth) from religious ‘exclusivists’ (who believe that only their religion alone has any truth) and non-religious people, showing that pluralists are the most likely to be civically and politically engaged on progressive issues.  

Previous research by Demos shows that people with a strong religious or ethnic identity are more likely to be proud of being a British citizen. Far from competing identities, Demos shows that people’s religious, political and national identities reinforce one another.

Jonathan Birdwell, author of the report, said:

“Rowan Williams may be far more representative of the religious community than many have suggested. Religion and politics in Britain do not interact in the sectarian way that we are used to seeing the USA – Britain’s religious population is in fact more tolerant toward immigrants and foreign migrants than its secular population and is more likely to prioritise equality over freedom.  They are also more likely to place themselves on the left side of the political spectrum. 

“Progressives should sit up and take note.  Their natural allies may look more like the Archbishop of Canterbury than Richard Dawkins.  Progressives would find higher levels of support against rising economic inequality among religious individuals than their secular counterparts.”

In a foreword to the report, the Rt Hon. Stephen Timms MP said:

“The progressive cause is often cast as being in opposition to the religious one.  This report shows that in fact, in many areas, they agree.

“Faith group members will be key in any future, election-winning, progressive coalition. In working to renew its policies after election defeat ... Labour can draw new energy and inspiration from engaging with faith groups.”

The report, Faithful Citizens recommends:

  • Progressive politicians in the UK should seek to work with faith groups on issues which Demos’ research shows they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work.
  • The current exam-format UK citizenship test should be replaced with a requirement to complete at least 16 hours of local volunteering.
  • While religious people are more civically engaged, they are less likely to have meaningful interactions with people from different backgrounds from their own. Politicians should champion efforts to encourage greater mixing between people from different backgrounds in pursuit of common goals.

Notes to editors

The original research presented in this report is based on Demos’ analyses of two datasets: the UK Citizenship Survey and the European Values Study. Researchers conducted bivariate analyses to investigate how religiosity affected civic engagement, political activism and political values.

The UK Citizenship Survey uses data from over 10,000 interviews of a nationally representative sample. The latest wave of the European Values survey (2008) surveyed over 70,000 across 47 European countries and regions. Demos selected nine Western European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK) and conducted bivariate analyses comparing religious indicators with instances of civic engagement, political activism, and political values for each country. 

Faithful Citizens by Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler is launched on Sunday 8 April 2012 and can be downloaded from www.demos.co.uk


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