It will come as no surprise that the western world is becoming more and more secular, with religious practice declining in most countries, England being no exception. You may expect therefore that London is a leading player in this game and that it would be one of the least religious places of all, but fascinatingly this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality London is bucking these national and global trends and is actually seeing a rise in religiosity. Stephen Bullivant, a professor of Theology and Sociology of Religion at St. Mary’s University, tells London360 that whilst approximately 50% of the country declare themselves as non-religious (in some places, like Wales and Scotland, this is even as high as 60%), only 35% of those living in inner London say they have no religion. The vast majority of those living in the Capital therefore belong to a faith community or believe in something. 20% of people in London practice weekly or more, which is double the national average of 10%.
One of the main reasons for this concentrated bubble of religiosity is immigration. Stephen says that ‘there are few less religious countries than Britain, so almost any immigration, unless it’s from Finland or Estonia, is likely to raise the average’. People who leave their own countries seeking new homes often choose London for its diversity, vibrancy and scope for opportunity. ‘Immigrant communities tend to come to the big cities, so you’d expect big cities to have larger proportions of people from non-Christian religions’. These people are also statistically far more likely to be religious. This has resulted in a real mix of religions in London which are disproportionately larger than the rest of the country. Stephen illustrates this with statistics from his latest report which shows, for example, that around 20% of Londoner’s identify themselves as Muslim, a number four times higher than the country as a whole. In fact, almost every religion is over-represented in London, apart from the Church of England. While the rest of the country is facing a general decline in religiosity and practice, London isn’t, its numbers are increasing. This is partly because immigration is encouraging a ‘religious replenishment’ in the city. Despite the fact that British natives tend to lose their religion and become increasingly secular as the generations go on, there are still enough people coming into London from elsewhere to keep the numbers high. Furthermore, these people are more likely to retain their religiosity, with young people from these communities being more inclined to continue to practice their families’ religion.
In a time where Britain is facing much political uncertainty regarding the future of immigration policy, however, this could all change. ‘The overall pattern of religiosity in London might not be sustainable’, Stephen warns, ‘if we have much fewer immigrants in the country then that’s going to have an effect because without the constant refreshing from more religious places, then arguably we’re going to see an overall decline with real pockets of resistance’.
If you enjoyed reading this article, make sure you keep an eye out for London360’s upcoming Religion Special, which airs on London Live, Community Channel and BBC Radio London this summer.