Any high school essay would be challenged by an examiner if the writer claimed that people respond to each event in isolation, taking no account of the history, traditions and beliefs they have lived with for years. But some of our news coverage is guilty of the same error.
Beliefs affect people’s behaviours, and we risk misunderstanding a news event if we fail to explore the underlying drivers which influence people’s responses to it.
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All beliefs. Including unbelief, which is by no means uniform but is the second highest category of religious identification in studies like the British Social Attitudes survey, where the No Religions category has remained steady at around 48% of the British population for the last few years.1 In Britain, that is. Not the UK: the picture in Northern Ireland is very different, where 19% of people identify as No Religion.2
And the No Religion category doesn’t always mean atheism. At ComRes, we surveyed just over 2,000 adults on behalf of the BBC earlier this year and found that 21% of people who claim no religion believe in some form of life after death.3 It appears that many people are adopting a syncretic understanding of the world which works for them, and perhaps they don’t want or need to subscribe to specific doctrines or belong to religious institutions.
But if you watch a news bulletin, you wouldn’t know that there’s all this interesting thinking going on under the surface. Perhaps that’s because newsrooms don’t always employ people with the time or lived experience to follow a religious thread to a story.
High though the No Religion response is, it’s still less than half of the British population. More than half of us, when completing a survey, tick a box aligning us with a religion. And whatever that might mean in practice for each of us, if we’re still ticking the box there’s something still there which means that this matters.
For the most part, journalists are a different breed.4 61% of them identify as No Religion and, when asked ‘how important is religion or religious belief to you?’, 52% said Unimportant and 22% said Of Little Importance.5
None of which matters at all, surely, given that the job of a journalist is to reflect the views and experiences of a wide range of people, including those with whom they have nothing in common. That is fundamentally a reporter’s job. Interviewing the survivor of a violent crime or terrorist incident doesn’t require experience of the same; empathy and listening are core skills for any journalist.
But to write about the motivations of someone with a particular faith requires some knowledge and understanding of the subject, to appreciate the believer’s particular dilemmas and joys and to identify their deeply held motivations. Perhaps it just doesn’t occur to some reporters that faith might form part of their interviewee’s viewpoint, if that reporter doesn’t give much credence to religious belief.
As we read in Lionel Shriver’s confessional last week, news is biased to the superficial and current rather than the historical and profound. We only hear about religion in the news when there’s a story about a specific faith community, rather than exploring the place of belief and unbelief in people’s behaviours. Excellent pieces like the BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme which looked at religious affiliation and voting patterns are sadly few and far between.6
But if we miss these connections, we miss out. In the UK, since last month’s General Election, we’ve heard all sorts of claims made about the DUP which fail to realise that some of their socially conservative policies reflect a religious landscape which is completely different to the rest of the UK and which is mirrored in many of the policies of other Northern Ireland political parties. And in the US, David French called out his colleagues last December for not ‘getting it’ when reporting the motivations of jihadists or the role that some white evangelicals played in the Presidential Election.7
These political stories are too big to get wrong, but if we misunderstand the faith traditions which influence them we risk losing the important histories which bring us to this point.