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23 December 2016

Belief and unbelief

To believe or not to believe – that is the question. It's also a question that creates more questions. Today, UK society is increasingly diverse, and as a consequence, there are increasing numbers of those who identify as either non-Christian or non-religious. Clearly these social changes have implications for evangelical Christians and for the mission of the gospel. So what do we know and think about this situation? We recently surveyed 1,562 evangelical Christians to find out. The research produced some significant statistics and some thought-provoking comments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research revealed a strong commitment among evangelicals to evangelism with a whopping 98 per cent believing that we should share the gospel with those of other faiths. In this respect we hope that the new Evangelical Alliance book The World on our Doorstep will inform and encourage this aspect of mission in the UK. The survey also showed strong support for the freedom to convert from one faith to another. Indeed, 84 per cent said that Christians should challenge Muslims about the right of all people to choose and change their faith, and 87 per cent also agreed that there should be no place in the legal system for Sharia law. In relation to the cross-over between cultural identity and religious identity, it's interesting that 83 per cent said that a Jewish person who accepts Jesus as the Messiah doesn't need to change their cultural identity. 

Sue Perlman of Jews for Jesus welcomed this finding, saying: "We are greatly encouraged by the percentage of those surveyed who believe Jews who come to faith in Jesus need not abandon their Jewish identity when it comes to culture and practice. When you think of it the early Jewish believers in Jesus, Peter, Paul etc. maintained their Jewish identity, so why should we do differently?" 

Generally, perceptions of existing religious freedom in the UK were positive. Despite a number of high-profile cases reported in media, evangelicals said that they experience a good degree of freedom to express their faith in public, with 49 per cent having never been made to feel uncomfortable or pressured to be quiet when talking about Jesus. Alongside this, there was a very strong commitment to the freedom to proclaim the full gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, with 92 per cent saying that preachers should have the right to express their beliefs about sin, judgement and hell, even if people find these offensive. 

While 81 per cent believed that an employee or student should have the right to speak or write openly and without fear of being disciplined about religious beliefs or values they hold, even where these may cause offence, it's encouraging that 88 per cent agree that Christians should befriend and listen to people of other faiths before jumping in to proclaim the gospel to them. This need for confidence and sensitivity reflects the theme of the Speak Up resource, which was recently produced by the Evangelical Alliance and the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship to highlight the many freedoms we have for the gospel, and to encourage the Church to exercise these freedoms. For more information, .visit eauk.org/speakup

Of the evangelicals polled, 82 per cent understand secularism as implying that religious beliefs and values are purely private and personal and shouldn't influence public life. What has come to be known as the 'myth of secular neutrality' clearly has little credence with evangelicals, with many respondents to the survey expressing deep concerns about threats to religious liberty in the UK. Not only did 86 per cent of those surveyed not see secularism as morally and politically neutral, 92 per cent see it as something that is actively seeking to impose its own worldview on the rest of society. Indeed, the vast majority of those surveyed agreed that no ideology or religion should seek to impose its views on the rest of society. 

This widespread disdain for the default secularism in our society can also be seen in the fact that an overwhelming majority of respondents agree that the government – and especially the media – do not understand religion very well. With 88 per cent identifying politicians as religiously illiterate and 94 per cent seeing the media this way, Dr Jenny Taylor of Lapido Media commented that: "There is still a zeitgeist that to govern the country and communicate with it well, you must deny yourself the effort of understanding faith. We're heading for a cataclysm unless that changes fast. It's terribly urgent we redouble our support for religious literacy enterprises in Britain now."

Possibly reflecting the issues raised by the Ashers bakery case in Northern Ireland, 80 per cent were of the view that secularists are using arguments about LGBT rights to attack Christianity. Indeed, a huge 89 per cent agreed that a business should have the right to refuse to print, publish – or write in icing on a cake – a message it doesn't agree with. Furthermore, an even larger number – 98 per cent – said they should have the right to teach their children (including adopted and fostered children) in accordance with their religious beliefs. This clearly represents a rebuff to attempts to reduce the influence of religion in the education system and curriculum, and to therein challenge parental authority in the home. Taken together these statistics can also be seen as a strong rejection of government attempts to register and regulate Sunday schools on the spurious basis of addressing terrorism. They also indicate the value of the Evangelical Alliance's You're Not Alone resource, which was produced to help Christian parents to understand their rights and responsibilities in education: education.eauk.org 

You can read a full round up of the main survey results here.

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