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Faith in the future

A collaborative programme which drew on the social sciences as well as the arts and humanities to address major questions about faith in a secular age continues to have impact, writes Matt Shinn.

Professor Linda Woodhead, Director of the Religion and Society Programme
Professor Linda Woodhead, Director of the Religion and Society Programme

‘Predictions of a secular future have not come true,’ says Professor Linda Woodhead of the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. ‘We need to understand why that is, and what it means.’

But while religion remains important within our society, as well as globally, it is also changing significantly. To shed light on the nature and consequences of this change, the Religion and Society programme was commissioned on the basis of a consultation involving the academic community, which highlighted the importance and timeliness of research in this area. Not just because of the importance of religion in contemporary society, but also because of a sense that religion had previously been marginalised within the academy, and hadn’t received the research attention that it deserved.

Religion and Society in facts and figures

  • The programme began in 2007 and ended in 2012
  • The programme received £5.5m funding
  • The programme funded 72 projects in all, including 22 Large Grants, 28 Small Grants, 12 Research Workshops and Networks and 13 Collaborative Doctoral Awards
  • 265 academics were involved with 21 PhD students, 53 early career researchers and 29 disciplines represented
  • 752 publications, including 91 books, 268 articles and 383 book chapters

The Religion and Society programme is the largest strategic research initiative that the AHRC has so far supported. With a budget of £12 million and lasting six years, it involved the AHRC working together with the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC). And with clusters of work around religion and education, violence and security, religion and the media and religion and the arts, it aimed to show how religion interrelates with many other aspects of life such as law, literature, ethnicity, social media and architecture - and even clothes design.

Faith and fashion

Reina Lewis is Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion. Working with anthropologist Dr Emma Tarlo of Goldsmith’s, University of London, her project Modest Dressing: Faith-based Fashion and Internet Retail has helped to open up a previously neglected field, namely the influence of religion on contemporary clothing styles.

‘It’s clear that the market is developing,’ says Reina Lewis. ‘The last two decades have seen the development of a rapidly expanding and diversifying market for modest fashion, arising initially from the needs of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women, who are motivated to dress modestly for religious reasons. But they also want to be on trend: there’s a discernible taste community here, and the Internet has been instrumental in enabling this niche market to flourish.’ One of the project’s findings was that clothing designs developed by one faith group were often able to cross over, and be adopted by others.

As well as stimulating debate between and within faiths, including through a series of public talks at the London College of Fashion, the project has helped designers and entrepreneurs in the fashion industry to cater for this growing market for modest dress. ‘We’ve created a community around the world, of researchers, designers and other people who are interested in this subject,’ says Reina Lewis. ‘And being sponsored by a Research Council was a huge help when I was approaching brands and community organisations. It showed that the subject was finally being taken seriously.’

Dark past

Saint William of Norwich
Saint William of Norwich

Drawing important lessons from the past, meanwhile, was the Youth, Violence and Cult project, led by Professor Miri Rubin of Queen Mary, University of London. The project focused on the twelfth-century murder of a boy known as William of Norwich, which a local monk described in a book, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich (now, as a result of the project, translated from Latin and published in Penguin Classics). William’s murder, it said, was perpetrated by Jews, in a bizarre ritual. William went on to be venerated locally, with his cult drawing visitors from far afield: as Miri Rubin says, ‘there’s a fateful ambivalence in all this – the fact that William of Norwich’s cult could have been a source of consolation and hope to so many, and yet at its heart was an anti-Semitic calumny.’

For Miri Rubin, having the chance to put together a research network for the project meant that she could assemble ‘my wish list of great people to work with, from around the world.’ Contributions were made by scholars in history, literature, art history and liturgy, who combined to illuminate the episode and its consequences. And for Miri Rubin, what the story of William of Norwich shows above all is how easily religious minorities, then as now, can become the target of unfounded accusations: ‘it’s the easiest thing to vilify and victimise a community, even when they seem embedded in the place where they are. What happened shows the importance of remaining vigilant.’

Too much with too little?

A project entitled Does Religious Education Work? looked at the aims, practices and effects of religious education in schools, in the very different contexts of England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It involved a detailed analysis of pupils’ experience of religious education in secondary schools: for project leader James Conroy, who is Professor of Religious and Philosophical Education at the University of Glasgow, the social and educational demands that are placed on it leads to a conflict between religious education as an academic subject and as a subject aimed at students’ social and personal development. His study also raised questions about how religious education should be supported – ‘even in schools where it is valued,’ he says, ‘too often it is under-resourced, and required to do too much with too little. As a result, it often loses focus.’

“Too often religious education is under-resourced, and required to do too much with too little”

Religious in different ways

Young people’s attitudes to religion were explored in Negotiating Identity: Looking at Young People’s Perspectives on Religion and Community. The project involved the biggest survey of young people ever carried out, looking at where they position themselves in terms of their religious identity, as well as their broader perspectives on religion and its positive and negative aspects. For Linda Woodhead, who led the Religion and Society programme, some clear trends can be seen in the survey’s results, with the growth of unaffiliated religious groups and a decline in traditional religious authority, and a more individualised religious experience, with a greater mixing of beliefs. And yet religion as a whole seems to be having a revival of interest among young people: ‘the evidence suggests that young people aren’t necessarily becoming more secular, they’re just engaged with religion in different ways – and may reject the organised religion label altogether.’

Lasting legacy – the Westminster Faith debates

If there were any doubt about the timeliness of the Religion and Society programme, or its ability to engage people outside of academia, the Westminster Faith Debates dispelled them.

In 2012 Linda Woodhead joined with former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, to launch a series of discussions that would bring research on religion to new audiences. The ongoing Westminster Faith Debates, which have received follow-on funding from the AHRC, have tested the research findings of the Religion and Society programme against the practical experience of public figures who are engaged with matters of religion and belief.

By the end of 2015 there will have been a total of five series of the Debates. Attracting considerable media attention and often standing-room-only, they have covered such topical issues as religion in public life, faith schools, radicalisation and religious freedom.

And following on from the debates, Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke have been preparing policy pamphlets, to make specific and workable recommendations in areas of current concern and importance. The first of these pamphlets deals with religion in schools, including the place of religious education in the curriculum, the practices of faith schools, and the ‘predominantly Christian act of collective worship’ that schools are currently obliged to include in their timetables. The pamphlet calls for a new settlement to update the 1944 Education Act, in the light of contemporary beliefs and practices, as they are revealed by the latest research. In particular, the pamphlet says, religious education needs to be wider-ranging, and assemblies need to be reworked to make them multi-faith, while also catering to the non-religious. According to Linda Woodhead, there is a ‘direct line of descent from these recommendations to the Religion and Society programme.’

Big collaborations

Finally, for Linda Woodhead the achievement of the Religion and Society programme as a whole is that as well as improving debate and discussion about religion, it has revitalised the study of religion in the UK: ‘the projects we worked on have helped to put religion back into disciplines that had largely neglected it.’ The programme has led to a huge body of new research on questions that are of central importance: ‘it has changed the nature of the debate about the role of faith in our society, brought research to the heart of that debate, and given it public presence.’ And at the same time, it has helped to train a new generation of researchers, and fostered new collaborations between disciplines in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

What Religion and Society shows above all is how adventurous the AHRC has been in its first ten years. ‘This was a programme in an area of huge contemporary relevance, and it’s had undeniable socio-economic impact,’ says Linda Woodhead. ‘The scale of the programme was extremely impressive – it was a big, ambitious undertaking, showing that benefits come from collaborations, and from daring to enter into areas which have been side-lined because of academic and social fashion.’

For further information, please go to: www.religionandsociety.org.uk/

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