Religious observance has declined over the years, the British Social Attitudes survey confirmed. The 28th report, published in December 2011, indicated that 50 per cent did not affiliate to a religion, and some who did seldom attended religious services or meetings.
But perhaps more worrying for Christians – and people of goodwill of all faiths and none – was the shift in attitude towards fellow-humans and the planet.
Unemployment has soared in the current economic crisis, and Trades Union Congress research showed that in July there were six jobseekers for every vacancy (over 20 per vacancy in some boroughs). But 54 per cent of people in the BSA survey said unemployment benefits were too high and discouraged the unemployed from finding jobs, up from 35 per cent in 1983.
Support for tax increases to spend more on public services such as health care and education has dropped to 31 per cent, compared with 63 per cent just nine years ago. Since 2000 the proportion of people prepared to pay much higher taxes to protect the environment has dropped from 31 per cent to 22 per cent. Yet warning from experts suggest that the earth’s surface is set to warm by 3.5°C by 2100, with disastrous results, unless carbon emissions are reined in: urgent action is needed.
Though housing shortages were widely acknowledged by those responding to the BSA survey, 45 per cent opposed new development in their area, rising to 58 per cent in outer London, where need is high.
In general, the survey showed a widespread tendency to blame those in need for their plight or, even if social problems are recognised, shy away from dealing with them. This will be alarming to those who feel that, while personal responsibility is important, this should extend not only to oneself and one’s immediate family but also to one’s neighbours and life on our planet.
The responses to the latest BSA survey may be, in part, because at times of insecurity, many people may focus on staying afloat themselves, as well as the tendency to seek scapegoats for society’s ills and to distance oneself from those in trouble. A deluge of propaganda from successive governments and sections of the media is probably also a factor. Yet faith communities and other belief-based organisations may also bear some responsibility.
While working parties and spokespersons may make excellent statements about economic and social problems, often little information reaches those at grassroots level through faith-related networks. Nor are the links always made between spirituality and findings from social and natural sciences.
Recently-published research by the Guardian and London School of Economics on the riots reveals that a large section of young people experiencing poverty feel marginalised. Many who feel alienated of course do not riot or turn to crime, but may turn their frustrations on themselves or simply give up hope. However there are serious risks arising from increasingly judgmental attitudes on the part of some people towards their neighbours, some of whom are increasingly angry and disaffected.
This is a challenge for all who want justice and peace, whether or not they are religiously observant.
(c) Savitri Hensman is a Christian commentator and Ekklesia associate.