New surveys shed light on who we are

By Linda Woodhead and Steven M Cohen, October 10, 2013
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What’s special about British Jews? How do they compare with other religious groups in the UK — and how do they compare with their counterparts in the US?

Two recently conducted national surveys of the British population — each with over 4,000 respondents and over 150 Jews apiece – offer new insights into the question of what makes British Jewry distinctive.

As two sociologists — one who specialises in the study of religion in the UK and the other who studies the Jews of the US — we think we may offer some insider-outsider perspectives.

The two surveys were conducted by YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates.

Among the more surprising findings are these:

Among Jews, about a third say they have “no religion,” largely equivalent to the proportion of “nones” in the UK population as a whole.

In comparison, only about one-in-five American Jews see their religion as “none,” much like other Americans.

In short, in both countries’ Jews are about as “secular” as their surrounding populations, which means British Jews are more secular than American Jews.

But what of the two-thirds who do identify with Judaism?

More than any other religious group in the UK, aside from Muslims, Jews say that they participate in a religious group. As many as 40% of Jewish adults say this, compared with just 16% of the population overall and 15% of Anglicans.

However, of those in Britain who attend services at all, Jews are the least frequent attendees of any religious group. Only a quarter of those British Jews who belong to a religious group attend services weekly, as against nearly half of active church- or mosque-goers.

About a third of Jews say they have no religion

If we consider the entire population — both those who ever attend along with those who never attend — weekly attendance for Jews and others is about the same, just under 10%.

In short, Jews join with co-religionists more than others; but once they join, they’re unlikely to regularly appear — at least at services.

Truth be told, given the relatively high rates at which they doubt the existence of God, the low service attendance rates of Jews-by-religion is not surprising. Those saying either “there is definitely NOT a God” or “there is probably NOT a God” amount to 28% of Jews who say their religion is Judaism.

In contrast, the comparable figures are lower for all other religious groups: Church of England (18%), Roman Catholics (13%) and Muslims (1%).

At the same time, Jews with no religion are less often atheist or agnostic than other with no religion: 51% for the Jews, and 67% for the other non-religion Brits.

It seems that God-belief is more central to religious identification for other religions than it is for Jews. Jews-by-religion are less likely to believe in God than Christians and Muslims; but Jews-with-no-religion are less likely to doubt or reject God’s existence than non-Jews with no religion.

While British Jews bear some similarity with American Jews in the religious/secular sphere, the same cannot be said for the political domain. Asked a few months ago for whom they would vote if the election were held tomorrow, among Jews-by-religion with an intention to vote and a clear opinion, 42% answered Conservative, as compared with just 30% for the country as a whole.

The combined results for Labour and Liberal Democrats were the reverse, with poorer showings for these two parties among Jews than among the UK population generally.

Although we must allow for the rather different political profiles of UK and US parties, these patterns contrast with those found in the US where Jews have long been staunch Democrats, while giving little support (except among the Orthodox) to the Republicans.

However, when it comes to personal morality, Jews hold far more liberal stances on abortion, for example, than other religious groups. 54% of British Jews-by-religion would keep the time limit for abortions at 24 weeks or even raise it, as against 44% among adherents of the Church of England.

Similarly, with respect to whether same sex couples should be allowed or not allowed to get married, Jews-by-religion split 52%/39% as against 44%/43% for Church of England.

For Jews, proponents of gay marriage vastly outnumber opponents 77% to 18%, in comparison with a smaller margin of 69%/20% for non-Jews with no religion.

Our survey asked whether it “was better to live in a Britain when more people shared a common culture” or “a Britain that has many different cultures.” For the survey respondents as a whole, “common culture” proponents exceeded “different cultures” proponents by a wide margin: 48% to 26%. But for Jews the numbers are reversed: just 36% for common culture and 46% for different cultures, suggesting a keen desire of Jews to preserve their group identity.

In general, British Jews place a premium on communal belonging, albeit without an excess of piety or religiosity. They hold conservative political loyalties balanced by someliberal social views.

Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion, Lancaster University. Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York

Last updated: 4:45pm, October 10 2013