Young people indifferent not hostile to religion, says new study

By agency reporter
October 4, 2010

Young people have not inherited a rebellious hostility to their parents’ beliefs, although for many of them religion is irrelevant for day-to-day living, says a new report.

The two key findings are outlined in a book entitled The Faith of Generation Y, authored by Sylvia Collins-Mayo (a sociologist of religion), Bob Mayo (a parish priest in West London), Sally Nash (Director of the Midlands Centre for Youth Ministry) and Anglican Bishop of Coventry the Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, who has five 'Generation Y' children.

Reporting a study of over 300 young people in England aged between eight and 23, who attended Christian youth and community work projects in England, The Faith of Generation Y (those born from around 1982 onwards) provides an empirically grounded account of the nature of young people’s faith – looking into where they put their hope and trust in order to make life meaningful.

The book goes on to consider whether Christianity has any relevance to young people, and asks whether the youth and community projects in which they participate foster an interest in the Christian faith.

The findings from the study suggest that for most young people faith is located primarily in family, friends and their selves as individuals – defined as ‘immanent faith’.

"For the majority, religion and spirituality was irrelevant for day-to-day living; our young people were not looking for answers to ultimate questions and showed little sign of 'pick and mix' spirituality," says Sylvia Collins-Mayo. ‘

"On the rare occasions when a religious perspective was required (for example, coping with family illnesses or bereavements) they often ‘made do’ with a very faded, inherited cultural memory of Christianity in the absence of anything else," she said.

"In this respect they would sometimes pray in their bedrooms. What is salutary for the Church is that generally young people seemed quite content with this situation, happy to get by with what little they knew about the Christian faith," commented Collins-Mayo.

When asked, ‘Which one of the following statements comes closest to your belief about God?’, infrequent churchgoers in the study answered: I believe in a God who is someone I can know personally (23 per cent), I believe in some sort of Higher Power or life force but not in a personal God (22 per cent), I don’t really know what to think (43 per cent), I don’t think there is any sort of God, Higher Power or Life Force (12 per cent).

Collins-Mayo adds: "The Christian youth and community projects were an important source of Christian faith support for the minority of young people who were already actively involved in Church. For the majority, however, the Christian dimension of the projects had little impact on them beyond keeping the plausibility of Christian belief and practices alive."

The 2001 UK census found that 62 per cent of young Britons still call themselves Christian, compared to 71 per cent of the population as a whole. Researchers say that this is more a cultural than a religious statement.

In a more recent survey only 27 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds felt they belonged to a Christian denomination, reports the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Just two-fifths of children are being baptised into the faith as “fewer and fewer young people are being brought up in households with religiously inclined parents”.

Learning about religion in school is important to the continuation of a memory of Christianity, if not commitment - which comes more from family, friends and peer influences.

But compulsory worship in publicly-funded schools, which is required by law at the moment, is more likely to have a counter-productive effect.

Although often unfamiliar with formal religion, 'Generation Y' are keenly aware of ethical issues, as Collins-Mayo comments: "Young people today have to grow up quickly and the study showed that they often face a wide range of difficult choices. Consequently, they were interested in ethics. The young people drew moral guidance from family as friends, but they also recognised the potential of religion, including Christianity, to provide them with guidelines for living."

When asked ‘Has being part of the youth group here caused you to think about any of the following’, infrequent churchgoers in the study answered yes to: What is the purpose of life? (28 per cent), God (30 per cent), Jesus (26 per cent), What is right and wrong (54 per cent).

The assumption that teenagers are alienated from their parents and hostile toward religion – a hangover from the 1960s and 70s – is a deep-rooted but flawed stereotype, according to the study’s findings.

"Generation Y have less cultural hang ups about the Church than did their predecessors… The challenge to the Church is to provide them with the opportunities to explore and to learn about a narrative of belief of which they know little," it suggests.

The book is divided into two sections: sociological and theological. The sociological perspectives section – which includes chapters on ‘Bedroom Spirituality’, ‘Lost in Transmission’ and ‘A Good Life’ – presents the empirical findings of the study and examines its implications for the Church’s approach to mission and ministry among young people.

A theological understanding for practitioners is offered via the chapters ‘Love Is Not Enough’ and ‘A Life of Faith’. Final words are provided by Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, in which he reflects on the five-year study from his perspective as a priest and theologian.


The Faith of Generation Y, priced £14.99 (ISBN 978 0 7151 4206 6), is available from bookshops or online here.


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.