Religion's role in the rioting

'Why didn't they steal ping pong tables, then?" was the response of the journalist Tony Parsons to the idea that the London riots had been caused by cuts to youth services.

I tend to share his caustic view of that argument. People were stealing to order, popping down to Currys because they had new headphones in, trying on trainers before looting them and queuing politely to take the security tags off looted clothes. I don't think the closure of a couple of youth clubs is enough of an explanation.

But I am cautious. If cuts to youth services were the reason, it would be rather inconvenient to my belief in the need for fiscal austerity. So perhaps the reason I am quick to dismiss the youth services argument is more to do with my own comfort than its merits.

There does seem to be a suspiciously strong correlation between the views that people had before the riots and their explanation. People who believe that the welfare system is a disaster study the riots carefully and decide that the central problem is...welfare! And the people who worry about inequality blame...inequality!

We should understand its power to do good as well as bad

I think the uncomfortable truth is that the causes of the riots were multiple and complex and don't really vindicate anybody. The right approach is for everyone to offer explanations and for us to sift through them carefully as part of a rich national debate.

So let me begin by offering something unusual, something that hasn't come up, that does, I think, matter and was one of the many things that played a role: the decline of religion.

I am theologically liberal and very tolerant of a wide range of religious views and lack of religious views. I am also a sceptic, struggling with a traditional view of God. Yet at the same time I am a committed Jew, believing very strongly in the value of our religion. I'll explain.

Why did people queue up when looting a shop? Because everyone else was queuing up. People tend to follow their peers, look what they are doing and do the same.

Although the emphasis in public debate has been on parenting and, in many cases, the absence of parenting, the social science evidence of peer group effects upon personality formation and teenage behaviour is even stronger.

Civil disorder is usually the result of groups of young males acting up. An extraordinarily large proportion of violent disruptions in history have taken place when the population tips and there is a prevalence of young males. That is true of almost every conflict area in the world, Gaza being a classic example.

There are many reasons why this happens, but one reason is that peer group effects are strong. In an atmosphere where they dominate, young males socialise with each other and often (not always, of course) the result is violent behaviour.

Members of these peer groups are not making individual calculations of their own advantage. They are looking anxiously to see how they fit in and to discover what the social norm is. It is wrong to think these groups don't have codes of behaviour and an idea of wrong and right. They do. It is just that their code is a long way from that held by mainstream society. Gang rules, for instance, can be very elaborate and mystifying for outsiders.

Religion works in a similar way. It is a set of rules, and ideas, shared among peers. It spreads from one person to another a way of behaving. It, too, can be very elaborate and mystifying for outsiders.

If there is a decline of religion, what replaces it? Where does the peer group norm that one doesn't steal come from? We talk all the time about moral values, but what moral values? From where? And who teaches them?

Religion with its traditions and sometimes unfathomable rituals has, for generations, been the transmission mechanism for good peer group values.

We see its power quickly enough when it is used for ill, as it has been in some fundamentalist Muslim sects, for instance. Then we understand only too well how it works and influences young people.

So surely we should understand its power to do good, too.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

    Last updated: 9:58am, September 2 2011