The issue of religiosity and how it pertains to skepticism has rarely been one I’ve been personally hugely interested in. I’m an atheist, and I think the chances that there’s a god out there are vanishingly small, and the chances that such a being takes any notice of what you do or who you are attracted to are so close to zero that even the homeopaths would consider them a weak proposition. But while other skeptics cut their teeth debating creationists and countering theological arguments, I never really got excited by those conversations. For me, god was kinda the least interesting incorrect belief people had – I wanted to get to the weird stuff.
That said, perhaps my indifference to religiosity in the UK is an error, as a new report has revealed that the country we live in, and it’s generation of young adults, are turning to religion in droves during the pandemic. As the BBC reported, on the 4th October:
Young people in the UK are twice as likely as older people to pray regularly, a new survey has found.
Some 51% of 18 to 34-year-olds polled by Savanta ComRes said they pray at least once a month, compared with 24% of those aged 55 and over.
It also found 49% of the younger age group attend a place of worship every month, compared with 16% of over-55s.
This might seem like a surprising finding, given what we all might have assumed and directly experienced in our day-to-day lives, but Chris Hopkins from the team behind the report has some theories:
“Firstly, as the demography of the UK changes, minority faiths do tend to have a larger proportion of practising young people, and therefore as the population of these groups increases within the UK, so will the prayer habits of the population at large,” he said.
He explained it was important to “factor in the impact the pandemic has had on the ability to engage with one’s faith” with virtual prayers and services being held online.
It is possible that the pandemic opened up more avenues to prayer to young people, and this is reflected in the findings,” he said.
So there’s the claim – that half of 18 to 34 year olds pray on a monthly basis, and roughly the same number attend a place of worship every month. Fortunately, unlike those apparently devout Zoomers, we don’t have to just take this on faith, because Savanta ComRes have published their evidence on this, for us to inspect.
In a report published on 27th September 2021, ComRes explain that they surveyed 2,075 UK adults aged 18 or above, and that their data were weighted to be representative of the UK population by age, gender, region and social grade. The survey comprised 16 questions, and is broken down by all manner of multi-factorial demographics, to really help mine the data for newsworthy nuggets.
The first question asks, assuming there are no Covid-19 restrictions in place, how often the respondents “Attend church and take part in a service. This might be on a Sunday or midweek, and in a traditional church building or another location”. This is the question in which we learn that 49% of people under 34 attend more than once per month, with 6% reporting once per month, 6% saying every two weeks, 12% saying weekly, 13% saying they attend a church and take part in a service a few times per week, and fully 12% saying they do it every single day. This question is specifically about attending a religious service; this isn’t asking about praying alone or in one’s head. According to this survey, one in nine people below the age of 24 attend church (or an equivalent thereof) daily.
While many of us would find so bold a result as a reason to reassess the methodology, ComRes instead explain it as a quirk of demographics, in that some faiths other than Christianity have a larger proportion of young people who actively practice their faith. Helpfully, the report breaks down the data by both age and religion, allowing us to see that 15% of young Muslims attend Mosque daily. However, the survey of 2,075 people included just 149 Muslims, which isn’t an ideal sample size – which is where the weighting comes in, to allow that small number of Muslims to be scaled up to be representative of the overall population.
This may well be the significant flaw in these findings, because when the report breaks down the 18-24 age group by religious affiliation, we can see that 19% of young Christians attend church every single day, compared to 11% of young Muslims. Both groups are dwarfed in devotion by young Hindus, of whom 27% attend services daily, and young Sikhs, 31% of whom attend services daily. Crucially, in absolute numbers, that amounts to one Hindhu respondent, and one Sikh respondent. This seems a lot to extrapolate from just two people’s answers.
Stranger still, the report spoke to 83 people in that age range who professed to follow no religion, four of whom said they physically attend a religious service on a daily basis. Again, anyone looking to validate these findings might have asked whether it could possible be the case that 5% of atheists attend church on a daily basis. A more parsimonious explanation almost certainly exists – such as, for example, that some respondents weren’t giving their answers their full attention. As I’ve covered elsewhere, even professional online opinion polling is often rendered dubious and unreliable by an incentive structure which encourages participants to prioritise answering multiple surveys quickly rather than taking their time to give fully-considered responses.
The weighting issue is curious, too, given that of the 2,075 people spoken to in the survey, the weighted number of Christians was 1,148 – or 55%. Given that the British Social Attitudes survey in 2018 found that 53% of Brits followed no religion, and 41% reported themselves to be Christian, it seems likely that many respondents in the survey was mis-weighted.
Mining the data
As well as methodological flaws and questions regarding sampling, the framing of the survey’s results feels like an exercise in data mining. It would be very easy to use the same data to present quite a different picture – for example, when asked to what extent people agreed with the statement “I am more likely to pray now than before the pandemic”, just 23% said they agreed, while 44% disagreed. This is the same data that ComRes explained needed to be read while “factoring in the impact the pandemic has had on the ability to engage with one’s faith”, yet the data suggests the pandemic had little to no effect.
Elsewhere, when asked if people believed their prayers would be answered, just 30% said yes, while 38% said no. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t make it into the press release from the religious organisation who commissioned the survey. Nor did the result of the question about the possibility of miracles, defined by the survey as “extraordinary events thought to be caused by a God or higher spiritual being as they are not explained by the usual laws of nature”. 35% of respondents believed miracles were possible, while disagreed with the existence of miracles 36%. Had those numbers came out the other way, it’s easy to see headlines proclaiming that “one in three Brits believes God can perform miracles” (let alone the data mining that demographic comparisons would then afford).
Another fun and equally-justifiable hook from the data could have emerged from the finding that 22% of Christians prayed for Boris Johnson during the pandemic, compared to 44% of Muslims. “Muslims were twice as likely as Christians to pray for the Prime Minister while he was hospitalised with Covid”, would have made for an interesting headline.
Plus, hay might have been made from the fact that 10% of Christians who pray regularly disagreed with the idea that it was good for their mental health. I’m not saying that is a meaningful conclusion to draw, but that’s only because I’m saying that none of the conclusions drawn from this survey are particularly meaningful or reliable. In my opinion, there are question marks regarding their methodology and their sampling, and this entire story seems to be little more than Bad PR with a theological theme.
Any analysis of the results of this opinion poll have to take into account its source, because ComRes didn’t ask these questions out of idle curiosity: they were hired to do so by Jersey Road PR. According to their website, Jersey Road are a PR firm that “gives voice and profile to Christian organisations”, and last year they ran a similar story on the rising religiosity of British youth, which made it into the Guardian, among other news outlets.
Jersey Road PR exist to get Christian groups positive mentions in the press, so it might not be overly surprising that the survey they commissioned resulted in the kind of headlines that ran on the BBC news site, and bagged their client an interview on the BBC news channel.
The client in question this time is the “Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, as highlighted by the BBC:
It was commissioned by The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer, a project to build a 169ft (52m)-tall arch made of a million bricks, each representing an answered prayer.
The group behind the ‘Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer’ aim to create a public art project near Birmingham, the shape of a giant infinity loop on which each brick will contain a crowsourced report of a prayer that was answered by (Christian) god. You may wonder how the organisation will ensure that only prayers that were truly answered by god will be included – according to their FAQ:
Every story is subjective and, as with any piece of art, people from all walks of life will be encouraged to come and admire the stucture. We do have a validation process to prevent abuse, but ultimately this is a piece of art that thousands of people will contribute to
The organisers promise the finished project will attract variously 200,000 or 300,000 visitors per year once it opens in 2023, it will generate £1.46 billion in terms of social impact. So far, the crowdfunder for the project has raised more than £320,000, and has garnered support from Christians Against Poverty.
According to the project’s founder, Richard Gamble, the wall will help “preserve the Christian heritage of our nation“, and he explained to the BBC that this latest (flawed) study challenges the perception that the UK is a secular society:
It is becoming increasingly clear that there is actually a growing spirituality in the nation,” he said. “If younger generations are exploring faith and spirituality online and in non-traditional ways it shouldn’t be a matter of debate, but should be encouraged and embraced.
Though Gamble doesn’t believe the report’s findings ought to subject to debate, I’d argue, given the flaws in the survey methodology and the striking nature of some of its findings, they’re not above examination and scrutiny. Indeed, upon seeing the data, UnHerd contacted another polling organisation, YouGov, to re-run the survey using their own sampling and weighting. According to their results (which can be viewed on YouGov’s website), the number of 18-34 year olds who attend church at least once per month is… 7%, not 49%. YouGov found 0% of that age group attend church on a daily basis – quite the contrast to the 12% in the ComRes results. According to the YouGov study, 75% of this demographic never attend church, and 79% of them say they never pray – results which are more in keeping with findings from other studies in this area, including the British Social Attitudes survey.
Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped Jersey Road PR from claiming that their recent work for The Eternal Wall of Prayer has reached a total audience that “eventually exceeded 2 billion” – a figure which would represent more than a quarter of the global population. Assuming, of course, that their figures are accurate.