Belief in the young

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Teenage Religion and Values, By Leslie J Francis and William K Kay, Gracewing #163;9.99, 0 85244 282 3. Mark Williamson on a survey of spiritual and moral values held by teenagers. Teenagers today are self-centred without respect for parents and older people, impatient about rules and responsibilities. They think they know everything, and as for the way the girls dress . . ." So wrote Peter the Monk in 1274.

Leslie Francis and William Kay, who have an impressive track record in these matters, refuse to reinforce or to challenge the stereotype which so exercised Peter. This is not a headline-making survey and its conclusion avoids generalisations, preferring to draw out some practical recommendations for clergy, teachers, adult educators and parents.

The sample is large - 13,000 pupils aged 13 to 15 from 65 schools in different parts of England and Wales - 1.3 per cent of the total age cohort. The transition point between childhood and adulthood is intentional. More controversially, the researchers filtered out the responses of pupils who belonged to non-Christian faith communities. Teachers in most urban areas will find this decision surprising in view of the fact that increasingly pupils of this age interact across religions and cultures and are accordingly influenced in their beliefs and opinions by that wide spectrum of belief and opinion that exists in these classrooms The survey was carried out by a questionnaire completed anonymously and confidentially during school time. Although the title of the report suggests a focus on beliefs and attitudes the researchers have ranged widely covering young people's perceptions of the area in which they live, leisure pursuits, work and politics. The data is processed in ways that make it possible to distinguish gender, age and denominational differences and the influence of churchgoing. Churchgoers are classified into three groups: those who attend nearly every week, those who attend sometimes and those who never attend and, by a process of cross-referencing, non-churchgoers can be classified as theists, agnostics or atheists.

Given the pedigree of the research team and the interests of some of the project's benefactors which include the Crusaders, it is not surprising that links between religious belief and churchgoing with particular ethical viewpoints and social attitudes are given detailed attention. On the key issues of right and wrong there is a remarkable consistency in the pattern of responses confirming that churchgoing pupils are more inclined to agree with keeping the law than non-churchgoers, although this predictable finding would carry more weight if more sophisticated examples of wrongdoing had been offered. Cycling after dark without lights is hardly a matter likely to arouse deep moral convictions and "playing truant from school" can no longer be viewed in itself as a breach of the accepted moral code; more usually it is the product of complex circumstances and a cry for help.

The sections on sexual morality and substance abuse provide contexts which are both more realistic and relevant. The picture that emerges shows the need for greater and more effective intervention with a significant proportion lacking any definite opinions on the range of complex issues concerned with human sexuality. Although the great majority of young people think it wrong, in descending order of seriousness, to sniff glue, use heroin or inhale butane gas, the overwhelming majority regard drunkenness as morally acceptable with an interesting variation between Free Church pupils who continue to reflect traditional disapproval and Roman Catholics who show significantly greater tolerance.

If sex education has an unfulfilled mission so does RE. One of the odder findings is that whereas 47 per cent of teenagers believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, only 34 per cent believe in God. The researchers conclude, as others have done in this particular field, that religious education has, for many young people, failed to give the basic information needed. At least on the provision of RE in schools the jury is still out with one third supporting, one third against and one third undecided. On collective worship there is an emphatic thumbs-down with only six per cent of pupils supporting the legal requirements which received recent support from no less a person than the Prime Minister.

Given the size of the survey and the quality of the analysis, the researchers could have been less reticent about the findings. At least the broad findings could have been summarized; some nuggets are so deeply buried that they only come to light through the closest reading of the dense and number drowned commentary. One in five think that there are too many black people in Britain with one in six undecided; one third believe that immigration should be restricted with nearly 40 per cent open to persuasion. On a brighter note the overwhelming majority want to work hard when they get a job, are ambitious and agree that a job gives a sense of purpose. Given this outlook it is hardly surprising that social scientists at the sharper end of youth unemployment report mounting bitterness and anger.

Most worrying, particularly for those who are likely to be reading this review, is the picture of a generation that far from being selfish is deeply concerned about poverty and the pollution of the environment and which beneath the perennial veneer of self confidence is racked by anxiety; one in four respondents had considered suicide. With more teenagers finding their doctor more approachable than their father and the general collapse of the youth work substructure that supported earlier generations, is there anyone left to listen?

Mark Williamson is General Adviser for Humanities and Religious Education in the London Borough of Hounslow.

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