Belief In A Cynical Age

15th July 2016

Being religious within an increasingly secular society means following rules and traditions that can seem outmoded or incomprehensible to others. Jennifer Lipman explores how it feels to be a devout young person today – and whether they find that their beliefs are more alienating or life-affirming...

‘Orthodox Jewish Belz sect ban women in London from driving’ read the Daily Mail headline, complete with an article comparing life as a female British Jew to living in Saudi Arabia. The story was all over the airwaves, prompting opinion pieces and disgusted comment across Facebook and Twitter. Naturally, friends were full of questions; as a Jew, what could I tell them about this astonishing story?

Being a modern Jew, observant and engaged with my community, but in no way cut off from society, I am invariably the go-to person for questions from non-religious chums and colleagues. And while I’m happy to answer questions, it’s with a sense of dread that I read a news report with the word ‘Jew’ in the headline.

It’s the same sinking feeling I imagine many British Muslims have when a story appears (‘Mosques ban trousers, travel and Facebook’, was a recent Times headline). Not because we’re not proud of our faith, but because the media doesn’t tend to write about ordinary people who also happen to be religious. Rather, newspapers cover the eccentric and controversial elements.

It’s a strange position to be in: feeling the need to defend my faith even as I make very, very clear that this isn’t my version of it. And it’s just one example of the complexity of being religious in Britain at a time when God, like politics, is something not to talk about in polite company.

Once, being religious was the norm here. We were a church-going, God-fearing people and, even for non-Christians, being part of a faith was expected. But figures show a decline in religious observance, in particular among young professionals. In the 2002 census 72% of people described themselves as Christian. A decade on, that had dropped to 59%, while a 2015 poll found that a mere 30% of us claim to observe a faith – considerably lower than in most other countries. To quote Alastair Campbell, ‘we don’t do God’; Britain’s religion, if anything, is football.

‘It’s become very ‘trendy’ to be agnostic or not believe in God,’ says Wendy, 33, from Wheathampstead, a Christian who runs her own business. She thinks this is partly down to celebrity culture glamorising secular lifestyles, but admits that ‘sometimes Christians aren’t always the best advert themselves for our faith’.

So what’s it like to be young(ish) and religious in Britain in 2016? It’s to mark yourself out as different, whether because of the dietary rules you observe, the festivals that bookend your year, or the fact that, overall, belief in a higher being is considered a little passé. It means explaining your choices in a way your peers rarely need to, whether that’s in terms of whether you’d marry out of the faith – an unfashionable view in these inclusive times – why you don’t drink, or why weddings in your community take place on Sundays.

“I do feel it sets me apart,” agrees Vinay, 22, a dentistry student in London and a Hare Krishna, who worships at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire. “People are shocked to find I practise two hours of meditation daily.” He says people find it hard to understand the principles of his religion, including the eschewing of meat, alcohol, gambling and illicit relationships.

Being a faithful non-Christian in Britain in 2016 is having repeated conversations every December about what you’ll be doing over Christmas – ‘you really don’t get any presents?’ – or always turning down invitations for after-work drinks on Fridays because the Jewish Shabbat is about to begin. For my Jain friend, it’s explaining to incredulous faces that her father fasts for a week annually, or that her wedding day would actually last for several. Ramadan, Chanukah, Divali… these are concepts many are familiar with, but few truly know about.

For Christians, given that this is still officially a Christian country, the rituals and rules are widely understood. Even so, observing them is unusual in these times, especially such things as avoiding sex before marriage. Paul, who is 31 and works in the public sector in London, says people tend to think his Christian views are outdated. “At work I rarely speak about my religion,” he says. He echoes my point about the media’s role. “It doesn’t portray religious young people doing good things,” he suggests, although he adds that it is harder for British Muslims than Catholics.

Wendy agrees, saying that people are often surprised to hear she is religious. “When I ask why, they’ve said things like ‘because you’re so normal and fun’, ” she says. “Apparently Christians are meant to be boring.” But she understands the mentality; having not always been religious, she too used to think a religious person was someone who would preach to her, or someone who was out of touch and restricted by the things ‘they couldn’t do’. 

So even for Christians, it’s swimming against the tide. To non-believers, admitting you place your trust in something spiritual can be akin to saying you believe in fairies or Santa. It’s far more socially acceptable these days not to eat something because you’re gluten-free than to decline because for a week of the year your religion prohibits you eating bread (as Jews do on Passover).

Our politicians tend to talk about God only in culturally non-specific terms. Celebrities rarely talk about God at all, unless they go American and thank him during an award ceremony.  Witness the reaction to Nadiya Begum’s Great British Bake Off triumph; some commentators struggled to reconcile reality TV and religion. “I was a bit nervous that perhaps people would look at me, a Muslim in a headscarf, and wonder if I could bake,” she said, after her win.

Certainly, some aspects of religion are not easy to communicate to the outsider. Try explaining to colleagues that you spend part of every weekend at a prayer service, or, more shockingly, that your nephew will undergo un-anaesthetised surgery (circumcision) at eight days old, probably in someone’s living room, and that this is seen as something to celebrate.

To the outsider, many religious traditions unsurprisingly seem bizarre and antiquated; inconsistent with everyday life. Fasting for a month every year, say, or declining to use electricity one day every week. As Wendy says, the main question she gets is whether she goes to church. “It’s quite foreign to a lot of people these days to make the time.” But in my experience, it’s not that we don’t question our faith or these practices, it’s simply that these still resonate. The pull of a community outweighs the inconvenience.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. For one, there are plenty of incentives not to be religious. As Vinay says, “in a world of mass distraction and a continuously updating Facebook feed, it’s hard to stay focused on being spiritual.” And religion is not cool; new acquaintances often seem confounded to discover you can be faithful and still, basically, just like them. “People feel we are unscientific, barbaric folk,” he sighs. Yet, aside from his faith, he has hobbies typical to his age group. “I support Arsenal, watch Netflix, study hard, but just have different underlying principles.”

More seriously, being religious can often in itself be controversial; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia remain worryingly potent. “I feel all religions are under a lot of attack these days, perhaps because it’s been made out to be something that brings about ‘bad’ things – like extremists and terrorism, or the Catholic Priests’ scandal,” suggests Wendy. “Standing up for what you believe in is never the easy choice to make.”

Despite the challenges, being religious in 2016 has much to recommend it. It can be tough navigating the pressures of contemporary life – work, relationships, money – but I know I’d find it harder without the automatic community, the sense of inclusion and identity that my faith carries with it.

Being religious isn’t just about God; it’s about friendship and support and being part of something. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

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