Shahzad Ahmed, UK
Paul Bickley, lead author of the report ‘Religious London’ is a Research Fellow at Theos, UK’s leading religious and social think tank . Pauls background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. He has published research on a variety of subjects, from religion and the constitution to faith-based social action. The Associate Editor for the Review of Religions, Shahzad Ahmed had a discussion with Paul Bickley regarding the various aspects of this report.
Whether it be its iconic landmarks, vibrant culture or rich history, the list is endless when it comes to describing the supremely unique city of London. But to describe it as “religious” or “spiritual” – given its dynamic and fast-paced lifestyle – would indeed be a long shot, by any stretch of the imagination, right?
Well, London is always full of surprises, and a recent study has proven just that, yet again.
Theos, the UK’s leading religion and society think tank, recently published a report which showed that 62% of people living in London are religious, compared with the rest of Britain, where 53% of people are religious. Also, Londoners practise their faith more regularly than those outside the capital, with 1 in 4 said to be attending a religious service once a month. Similarly, the study showed that Londoners are more socially conservative than the rest of Britain when it comes to certain key moral questions. 
We often perceive the high-rise buildings and skyscrapers sprawled across the diverse contours of the capital’s landscape as the lifeblood of the city, driving its economy and its people. But we should never forget that London is also home to over two and half thousand places of worship, belonging to a diverse range of faiths and religious communities.
Against the backdrop of this fascinating study, we are reminded that these buildings do not merely serve as symbolic structures, or occasionally provide its onlookers a sight of architectural brilliance, but in fact they, and their respective communities, stand as important pillars of a flourishing society.
The Review of Religions had the opportunity to speak to Paul Bickley, the lead author of the report, to gain further insight into the research.
S: Thank you Paul for taking time out to answer our questions. If I could start off by asking, what was the inspiration behind conducting this research – why now and why London?
P: 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the advent of the London mayoralty and assembly – during that time, the city has become even more vibrant, diverse, confident and successful. It’s also started to identify itself against some of the apparent political values of the rest of England (think of the Brexit debate). We wanted to explore how much that is also true in the space of religion and belief. There is an irony here – that London’s global and cosmopolitan nature results in the very things that global and cosmopolitan sentiment dislikes – high levels of religiosity and social conservatism!
S: The results of the research have shown that London is more religious and socially conservative than the rest of Britain. Why do you think this is the case? What factors are there, which are perhaps unique to London or city life in general, that have caused this?
P: It’s tempting to reach for a single cause – and if I were forced to, I would reach for immigration. This is the biggest factor in explaining high levels of religiosity. But then I think that creates a different religious ecosystem, where other factors then become significant. Some of these are simply demographic – higher birth rates amongst the religious, for example. Also, in London we have reached a point where the majority culture is religious. This helps young people feel more ‘normal’ in having a religious identity, as opposed to other places in the country where being religious is perceived to be particularly odd. In other words, there are fewer cultural headwinds to the religious believer – which is not to say there are none! I think there is still an assumption that religious people who are migrants will eventually give up on their ‘superstitions,’ in just the same way they’ll eventually start dressing in western clothes. That attitude is deeply offensive.
But there’s never just one factor. We also need to consider domestic migration in and out of London. Before the pandemic, about 30,000 graduates every year were moving to London, which is significant. Equally, if you look at the change over the ten year period between the 2001 and 2011 censuses in a borough like Barking, for example, you would see massive changes in ethnicity – that’s white-out migration. So you have complex layering of migration patterns – some international, some national.
S: You mention that immigration and ethnic diversity is potentially one of the major factors. How does London compare to other cities, such as Manchester, Bradford or Birmingham, which are also ethnically diverse and have higher rates of immigration? Do the statistics vary from London versus the rest of Britain, if we were comparing London against Leicester or Manchester for example?
P: I think there are similarities and differences with the London case. Birmingham would be an example of where religious identification would be very high, but it’s not as diverse as London.What I mean by that is 4 in 10 would identify as Christian, 3 in 10 as Muslim, and 3 in 10 would say they have no religion. The Sikh, Hindu, and Jewish populations are relatively small. Meanwhile, Manchester – the city rather than the metro area – is around half the size of Birmingham, but the Muslim population is much smaller, around 15%. So again, less diverse. Then there’s somewhere like Liverpool, which would be primarily Christian-identifying, with a comparatively small Muslim population. London is a genuine exception, even against other large cities in the UK. To find a comparable city, you’d have to go to New York.
S: London is undoubtedly an extremely dynamic and vast city. What challenges did you and your team face whilst conducting the research to ensure reliable and accurate representation?
P: One challenge was to get comparable statistics for national and London data. We had to commission two sets of polling with the same questions. It’s also tough to get significant enough samples to understand what’s happening inside particular religious communities that might not be large numerically, but are nonetheless significant culturally and theologically. Even the category ‘Christian’ is not particularly helpful. Certainly, we need in the future to find ways of not talking about ‘other religions’ as a single undifferentiated category.
S: When you say that you had to commission two sets of polling with the same questions, is that a simple case of comparing like for like? For example, comparing ten white Christians living in London to ten white Christians living outside of the city, or ten Buddhists from ethnic minorities living in London compared to ten Buddhists from ethnic minorities living outside of London? Or is it not as simple as that – and if so why?
P: It’s more simple than that – the goal was to get a reliable sample size in the nation as a whole and also in London, where we wanted a sample of at least 1000. Both are representative surveys so we can make comparisons between the proportion of Londoners versus the proportion of those outside London who identify in a certain way, or have a certain opinion.
S: Many studies have shown that atheism or those regarding themselves as religious “nones” is growing. So while London may be more religious than the rest of Britain, is religion as a whole declining?
P: It depends what you mean by religion – affiliation is declining at an astonishing rate in Anglican Christianity. Religious practice is declining, but much more gently. There is a growing body of evidence that religious social and public action is growing. Sociologist Grace Davie once described the change as a large conscripted army to a smaller professional army, and I think that is very perceptive. And there’s no doubt that people are deeply suspicious of religious claims and perspectives, and very many people believe that they are a net negative. Even in London, the fastest growing group are the religious nones.
S: I know the study only focuses on the UK, but in the USA, the Midwest or southern rural parts are said to be more Christian, hence referred to as the “Bible belt”. Is this study of London perhaps going to change the conventional views we hold about cities in general? Or do you feel these findings are unique to London?
P: Even if you were comparing London’s Christianity with the Christianity of the Bible belt in the US, you’d be looking at very different kinds of things. London’s Christianity is ethnically diverse, drawn from many different corners of the world – including England itself – and it exists in a context where secular values and other religious traditions are very strong indeed. The Bible belt’s Christianity is more homogeneous, strongly associated with American national identity, and increasingly with Republican politics.
However, I do think that the Religious London project challenges perceptions that English Christianity is a disproportionately rural phenomena – it’s not. Of course, for obvious reasons, Islam in the UK is a very urban phenomena.
S: How do you think London can benefit from this fascinating research? What are your key recommendations and, for example, how can governments and political leaders effectively engage with religious institutions? Also, what role can faith communities and religious leaders play?
P: London faces some really significant challenges. Domestically, much attention is now on levelling up the midlands, the north, and the southwest – quite rightly. London will find life harder culturally and economically after our departure from the European Union. Now the pandemic will make London a far less attractive place to work and live, and many large and significant businesses will do less of their business in the city. Add to this tensions around social cohesion and racial justice, which are particularly acute in the capital. Religious people and institutions must play an even greater role in building cohesion and caring for the vulnerable.
In my own Christian tradition, I often think of the biblical story of Jonah, the prophet sent to Nineveh. He thinks the city is irredeemably corrupt, and doesn’t want God to be merciful towards it. God asks Jonah, “Should I not love this great city in which there are 120,000 people?” I think God looks on London and says, Should I not love this great city with its 9 million people?” Religious people need to commit to seeking its flourishing and welfare.
S: Thank you very much for providing these very insightful answers to this key topic. Thank you!
After speaking to Paul and having learnt more about this fascinating study, one certainly realises that religiousness is indeed a very subjective term. There is no given yardstick by which we can truly determine what exactly constitutes as being “religious”. It not only varies from one faith to another, but also within the adherents of the faith itself. While the study comes with challenges of its own, its intriguing results have indeed challenged our perceptions.
But if London is more religious than the rest of the country and continues to become more religious, then what does this signify and is this necessarily always a good thing? If the most challenging times in our recent history are anything to go by, then certainly London’s future is truly bright and worthy of emulation. During the Covid-19 pandemic, faith communities were at the forefront – whether it be the Sikhs of The Guru Maneyo Granth Gurdwara in Slough offering its entire four-acre site to the NHS as a temporary hospital, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association delivering thousands of meals for NHS staff, or the Salvation Army providing over thousands of essential PPE equipment to care homes – these acts of kindness are innumerable.
Indeed, all religions are true at their source and teach the fundamental principle of serving God and serving His creation. No matter what religion one follows, as long as they practise its pristine tenets, it will always lead to good.
Highlighting the vital role played by religious institutions and faith leaders, the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Fifth Khalifa (Caliph), His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) stated at the historic Conference of World Religions at the famous Guildhall in the City of London:
‘I hope and pray that we, who are the representatives of different faiths and religions, and who have gathered here today to particularly demonstrate these loving teachings, all strive towards worshipping the One God, by treating His Creation with justice and by fulfilling their due rights. Certainly, these are the original teachings of all religions. We should utilise all of our resources and capabilities to foster a better society, to help God’s Creation and to spread love, affection and peace at every level.’ 
Thus, Religious London – Faith in a Global City not only highlights the important role faith can play in our capital but also outlines key recommendations of how the government and public institutions can engage with faith leaders and religious communities and see them as viable assets of our diversely rich capital.
About the Author: Shahzad Ahmad is Associate Editor of The Review of Religions. He also serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He studied BA English from University of Greenwich. He appears regularly as a panellist on various programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (MTA) including on ‘Islamic Jurisprudence’.