22 November 2023

Keeping the faith – how religious belief can strengthen British society


Britain has had it tough over the past 15 years. The 2008 global financial crisis under ‘New Labour’ was followed by a period of austerity during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The political and social turbulence surrounding Brexit and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was accompanied by the Covid-19 pandemic, which thrust issues such as social isolation and economic precarity into the spotlight. We now find ourselves in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis which is having a disproportionate impact on younger families and people with disabilities. The recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had knock-on effects in the Western world – placing an unsettling strain on social cohesion in the UK.

There is no doubt that we’re in a volatile and uncertain world – one where individuals, families, communities, and nations are presented with myriad challenges. This raises the question of what helps to protect, maintain, and even strengthen psychological well-being and promote mental health in times of crisis and difficulty.

The Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life’s inaugural report, Keep the Faith: Mental Health in the UK, explored the relationship between faith and subjective well-being. The study, based on a nationally-representative survey of UK adults by British Polling Council member TechneUK, investigated how degrees of religiosity and levels of attendance at religious services were associated with self-reported psychological well-being, happiness and life satisfaction. While this a well-developed area in the United States, where religion – especially Christianity – plays an integral part in political discourse and wider public life, the same can’t be said for Britain (which is somewhat reflective of the rapid mainstream secularisation and significant growth of atheism in recent times).

The findings show that when compared with self-declared atheists and nonbelievers, religious Britons are notably more likely to report positive psychological and mental-health outcomes.

Among respondents with a specific religious affiliation (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist), seven in ten said that their psychological well-being was in good shape over the three months leading up to the survey (with one in ten saying it was in bad condition overall). Comparatively, among atheists, under half (49%) reported good psychological well-being, with over a quarter saying it was in bad shape (26%). Among respondents who said they had a strong attachment to God, Gods, a Higher Spiritual Being or Being, over three in four (77%) reported being satisfied with their life (with 9% being dissatisfied). For those who do not believe in the existence of a divine or spiritual power (or powers), 54% say they are satisfied with life (with 26% reporting life dissatisfaction).

Among respondents who said their religious background is important to their personal identity, 69% said they were optimistic about their future (with one in ten saying they were pessimistic). For those who said their religious background was unimportant to their personal identity, under half said they were optimistic (48%), with more than one in four – 27% – saying they were pessimistic. These relationships were statistically significant even after controlling for protected characteristics such as age, sex, and race (along with education and socioeconomic status).

The benefits of faith-based membership – such as regularly attending religious services (beyond occasions such as weddings and funerals) – shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of social capital. These institutions and rituals provide a shared sense of belonging and purpose which can enhance mental well-being – cultivating bonds of trust and even potentially helping to build professional contacts which provide economic opportunities. Perhaps it is no surprise that it is so strongly associated with positive well-being.

Moving forwards, both policy makers and practitioners in the mental-health space need to unlock the potential of faith and spirituality, harnessing it in local communities. Encouraging involvement in faith-related civic participation and integration into welcoming religious congregations can foster both spiritual connection and feelings of rootedness and neighbourliness – offering an uplifting sense of security and belonging. It also provides chances to build social relationships underpinned by common causes – which can be especially important when confronted with the challenges and pressures of life. There must be stronger recognition of the value of faith and how it can be a sustainable source of gratitude, resilience, self-discipline, and optimism in British life.

In an increasingly secularised, atomised, and materialistic society with its fair share of mental health issues, an inclusive appreciation of faith and spirituality in modern Britain would be most welcome.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a senior research associate at the Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life (IIFL).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.