Author Archives: David Robertson

Changing Religion in the 2021 Census

It’s now official – the United Kingdom is no longer a Christian majority country. This is the headline from the 2021 census data on religion in England and Wales (not Scotland, more on that later), although the more conservative papers may go for “Christianity still the largest religion in Britain”. Which is also true, but it is the first headline that will garner the most attention because the idea of secularisation – basically the idea that religion is in decline in modernity – is so entrenched in how we think about religion in the modern world.

But for those of us who have been geeking out about this data since the question was first asked in the 2001 census, the immediate takeaway is how little there was here that was a surprise. Almost everything in the 2021 census was predictable from comparison of the 2001 and 2011 censuses.

72% of the population of England and Wales (37.3 million) identified as Christian in the 2001 census. This fell 13% in the next decade, when 59% (33.2 million) ticked that box. In the last decade, it fell by exactly the same amount – 13%, to 46.2% (27.5 million people). So while it is less than half for the first time, the trajectory was entirely predictable, and importantly, steady. It all suggests that “no religion” will overtake Christianity to become the largest religious identification by the next census.

It is important to note that this question is focused on religion as identity. There is no question about what one does, or indeed what one believes. None of these three things is “really” religion any more than any of the others, but it certainly complicates things. A person might identify as Christian who doesn’t believe in God or go to church, and equally someone with “no religion” might pray or regard themselves as spiritual. The video below discusses why this is important for interpreting census data.

So is this a decline of institutional religion? Well, yes and no. There were slight increases to the percentage of the population identifying as Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist, and “Other”. The largest of these was for Islam, which rose from 4.9% to 6.5%, or around 800,000 people. Not only is that a far smaller percentage of the population than most people realise (encouraged by the right-wing press), but it in no way explains the nearly 6 million who no longer identify as Christian, the vast majority of whom now ticked “no religion” (37.2% in England, but 46.5% in Wales). Scotland has yet to publish its results, but it is likely to be higher still, as already in 2011 Christianity stood at 51%, and no religion at 37% (source).

But on the other hand, in the UK context, Christianity is “institutional religion” personified – the monarch is the head of the Church of England, and its functionaries are part of the House of Lords and other parts of the legislature. So identifying as Christian hits differently than identifying as a minority religion – one marks one as a member of an oppressed or marginalised community, the other as a member of the British Empire. Which is to say, when looked at in that way, it is understandable that a rejection of institutional religion really only affects certain religious institutions.

Perhaps the most likely factor, however, is simply that the default option has changed. Whereas only two decades ago, three-quarters of English people were content to tick the box for Christianity, now fewer than half are. But it’s hard to see evidence that our lifestyles have changed all that much. Maybe the thing that has changed the most is that people, especially younger people, are no longer inclined to say Christianity when really they don’t particularly care.

So, does the census result show that religion in the UK is changing? Probably, though how much depends on what we mean by “religion”.

Should we keep politics out of The Beautiful Game?

By Paul-François Tremlett

The 2022 World Cup is set to kick off. Thirty-two teams (including Wales and England) will play in Qatar in eight stadiums, seven of which were built from scratch for the tournament alongside transport and tourist infrastructure. As the build-up intensifies, voices calling for fans to simply “focus on the football” or to “keep politics out of football” have grown louder. But Amnesty International, the Guardian newspaper and the BBC, among others, have reported on poor working conditions, exploitation, bullying, poor pay and even deaths among the migrant workers recruited to build the facilities for the tournament. The Guardian, in a 2021 article, put the number of deaths since Qatar was awarded the right to host the competition by FIFA in 2010 as high as 6,500 (source: The Guardian). So, should we focus on the football and keep politics out of the beautiful game?   

I think the question has two dimensions – one ethical, the other conceptual. I’ll take the conceptual dimension first. This boils down to the demand that we focus exclusively on the football and ignore the treatment of migrant labour. It also means, however, that we ignore a range of other things like social media, racism, fashion, money, fandom that are also implicated in football. We hear similar demands from some quarters in religious studies that we need to focus squarely on the religion. But the late Bruno Latour insisted on this point; things don’t exist in a pure state or as discrete objects; rather, they are always hybrids, combining with other things. So, you should reject the call to focus solely on the football because, at a conceptual level football, very much like religion, doesn’t make much sense on its own, demarcated from everything else.  

Now for the ethical dimension. The demand to keep politics out of the beautiful game and simply focus on the football feels like a tacit admission that the ethical dimension really does matter. Events like these – events that are mired in controversy – might best be understood as “open cultural objects that provoke moral discussions” which can have a “fundamental role in the creation of specific moral publics” (2018: 237). Could a moral public, indignant at the treatment of migrant labour, produce social change in Qatar and beyond that improves their pay and conditions? That’s up to you. 

References 

Jedlowski, A. (2018) ‘Moral Publics: Human Trafficking, Video Films and the Responsibility of the Postcolonial Subject’, Visual Anthropology, 31 (3): 236-252. 

Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Cultural Citizenship

By Dayal Paleri (Indian Institute of Technology Madras/University of Edinburgh)

Violent confrontations between the Hindus and Muslims in Leicester since late August have opened up new questions about the future of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. This also underlines the global implications of the rise of religious and cultural nationalist ideologies in South Asia. In this respect, two points are noteworthy. First, one may observe a stark resemblance between the sequence of incidents in Leicester and instances of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, or what is frequently referred to as the phenomenon of “communalism”.[1] Like many typical communal incidents in India, the tensions in Leicester started over an India- Pakistan cricket match that led to organised marches, provocative sloganeering, burning of religious flags and desecration of worship sites. More strikingly, as is quite prevalent in contemporary India, the Leicester row led to the emergence of a new discourse around the term “Hinduphobia”.[2] Shockingly, it was the opposition leader from Labour, Keir Starmer, who made a public appeal to “resist Hinduphobia”—a statement that not only echoed but legitimised the Hindu nationalist version of the events in Leicester as a one-sided attack on the Hindus.

This idea of “Hinduphobia” that implies the existence of systematic hatred against Hindus and thereby evokes perpetual victimhood of Hindus is central to the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or what is commonly known as Hindutva (Hinduness). Despite being an overwhelming majority in India, this is often used to legitimise anti-Muslim violence in contempoary India. Does the Labour leader’s invocation of “Hinduphobia” indicate growing acceptance of the ideas and vocabulary of Hindu nationalism in the diasporic and global contexts? This may still be an open question but it surely prompts us to think of the Leicester incident, not as isolated and/or spontaneous, but a consequence of the global rise of Hindu nationalism and its umbilical relationship with violence. Inevitably, we need to understand the fundamental tenets of Hindu nationalism in order to make sense of the intricacies of the recent events in Leicester.

A man rides his bicycle past volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) taking part in the “Path-Sanchalan”, or Route March during celebrations to mark the Vijaya Dashmi or Dussehra in Mumbai, India October 11, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

Hindu Nationalism: The Politics of the “Other” and the “Self”

Like other similar supremacist ideologies, Hindu nationalism is rather one-dimensional and does not provide much room for complexity. To put it simply, it is a cultural nationalist ideology that perceives India as a civilisation that has existed since time immemorial but has undergone frequent colonisation over the years. An individual is accorded citizenship of this imagined Hindu nation not through conventional criterion such as their place of birth but based on the origins of their religion, or in other words, what they consider as their “holy land”. Obviously, this idea, therefore, places  the citizenship of religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians, under perpetual doubt as their holy lands are outside India. In this framework, equal citizenship and coexistence between Hindus and non-Hindus is impossible. In Hindu nationalist terms, the religious minorities are advised to keep their religious practices within the private sphere and to constantly proclaim their affinity to the perceived cultural whole of Hindutva. The idea of Hindu nationalism found its most coherent expression in the writings of V D Savarkar and took its organisational form through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that was formed in 1925.[3]

The independence movement of India grappled with the politics of Hindu nationalism and its assertion of cultural citizenship but it remained a marginal force throughout this period. In the decades after independence, India emerged as a democratic republic based on the idea of secular citizenship. However, the politics of Hindutva found its initial success during the 1980s and 1990s, often characterised as the era of Mandir (temple), Mandal and Market.[4] The year 2014 marked the rise to dominance of the ideology of Hindu nationalism, not just in politics but even within the civil society, and socio-cultural life in general. Since then, India has witnessed the phenomenon of everyday violence against minorities in the name of cow vigilantism, and “Love Jihad”.[5] One of the fundamental ideas of Hindu nationalism, that of unequal citizenship, was operationalised through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA Act), 2019 that introduced a new, religious criterion for citizenship and excluded only Muslim refugees from the neighbouring countries in South Asia from acquiring the citizenship of India.[6] The post-CAA period has perhaps inaugurated a new era of “legitimate violence” against minorities through successive legislative interventions such as the ban on Hijab, prohibition of religious conversion and bulldozing of “illegal” Muslim settlements. The mobs that perpetrate such instances of everyday violence now seem to enjoy sheer legal impunity. In sum, the ascendance of Hindu nationalists to power in India has systematically resulted in the use of violence as a form of enacting its idea of cultural citizenship, which inherently establishes an unequal form of citizenship between the “Hindus” and “non-Hindus”.

Scholars of Hindu nationalism have documented the long history of its involvement in anti-minority, particularly anti-Muslim, violence in India. That the Hindu nationalist vision of India, at its very core, is against peaceful coexistence with the “other” is part of the academic commonsense on Hindu nationalism. Many scholars have also pointed out the historical non-existence and contemporary impossibility of the Hindu nationalist idea of India as cultural/civilisational whole, due to its essentially diverse, plural and multiethnic nature[7]. The argument was that the Hindus have always been strictly divided on the basis of sectarian, linguistic, regional, and, most significantly, caste identities. With growing appeal of Hindu nationalist politics across regional and linguistic barriers, it appears that this faith in the innate diversity of Indian society acting as an antidote to Hindutva was perhaps inflated. A fuller understanding of Hindu nationalism demands an understanding not just of its “other” but also of its relationship with itself—the “Hindu nationalist self”. Hindutva is often defined in the Hindutva discourse as “a way of life”, then the question to ask is “whose way of life”?

If there is no pre-existing cultural unity, how does Hindu nationalist politics become so appealing across geographical terrains of India? One of the social thinkers who grappled with the question of cultural unity is Dr BR Ambedkar, and his writings provide us essential cues to understand the intricacies of Hindu nationalist perception of cultural unity. Ambedkar, in one of his early writings, points out the indubitable cultural unity that India possesses, which is bound by the system of caste[8]. For Ambedkar, “caste is a parcelling into bits of this larger cultural unit”, and any attempt to understand the cultural unity requires an understanding of the system of caste that binds it.[9] Ambedkar explained caste as a system of graded inequality in which all “Hindus” are necessarily divided into different caste communities that are placed in vertical series, one above the other, based on the principle of gradation and rank. This aspect of graded inequality is a feature of all spheres of life in India—social, political, religious and economic. Therefore, in Ambedkar’s conception, the internal structure of the “cultural unity” of India is the system of caste, in which different castes are placed in a hierarchical system based on the principle of graded inequality. Given this, how is the Hindu nationalist engaged in the making of a “Hindu nationalist self”?

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Religion and Fashion: As Much Worn as Believed?

During the last couple of years I have been consulted by the design team of a leading international fashion house. This has been a surprise to me as well as to everyone who knows me. No-one has ever associated me with fashion. Happily, the design team did not approach me for fashion tips. Rather, they had been approached with an idea about ‘animism’ and wanted to understand it better. In particular, they were reflecting on how animist ideas and practices might aid their development of ethical, ecological and socially responsible and respectful clothes and accessories. They had a good track record in doing similar things but wanted to go further. They understood that ‘animism’ suggests something about good relationships with the larger-than-human world but its association with Indigenous people raised concerns about cultural appropriation.

Kate Fletcher with some of her drums

I talked with several groups within the company – including lawyers concerned about the ownership of cultural knowledge. Mostly I provided an orientation to recent research about animism – emphasising that the term is increasingly used to refer to ways of engaging with the world as a community of related beings, and of many co-evolving species, all of whom deserve respect. Animism, in this sense, is about seeking to act respectfully towards other beings, including those who provide us with food and clothes and other necessities. In the words of one animist when asked what a ceremonial drum costs, “a drum costs the life of the animal who gives its skin”. How people value such a drum may be expressed in how, why and where they play the drum. It might be asked what difference it makes to understand a drum – or a set of clothes – in this animistic way.

The fashion team wanted ideas about what images, words, and other design features might indicate their respectful response to learning about animist ways of relating to the larger world. But they wanted more. They applied their company’s previous efforts towards increasing good production practices (sustainability, traceability, recyclability) as well as good relations with those who produce the materials and the finished products. They wanted to make and sell clothes and accessories that would be animistic in some sense. One of the quotes I used to structure my conversations with the team was Gary Snyder’s phrase “Performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy” (from his 1990 book, The Practice of the Wild). There’s a lot in quote, but in essence I used it to invite the design team to think about how the clothes people wear address the wider world and/or demonstrate their commitments. Quite how a global fashion company does this – and how self-identified animists might afford their products – are bigger questions than I want to address here.

Graham Harvey trying on the Biosis tie blouson

Before turning to more general thoughts about religion and clothes, it should be noted that dramatic changes in the fashion company led to the cancellation of the project even as items from the range (called Biosis) were arriving in the warehouse. Nonetheless, this very specific engagement between myself and one fashion design team invite further reflections about religion and clothes. What people wear or don’t wear are among the ways in which they express their religious affiliations or differentiate themselves from members of other groups. There are everyday expressions of commitment and identity such as religious jewellery (a cross or a magen david) and clothes that are considered appropriate or respectable (turbans or hijabs). Some people dress more formally or elaborately for ceremonies – putting on their “Sunday best” suit or the more elaborate regalia that identifies them as authority figures or ritual leaders. Learning what kinds of clothes are expected or problematic is part of finding one’s place in a group. It is also true that clothes that signal belonging within a group might also advertise difference from others. Sometimes these choices generate controversy – deliberately or otherwise. Some politicians and media are among those who assert that particular religious dress codes are against national values or expressive of inappropriate radicalism. In short, the clothes people wear are not always simple or casual but might carry a wealth of messages.

Much of this will be familiar to those following the interests of the Open University Religious Studies team. Our focus on religions as they are lived leads us to engage with what people do in everything from everyday to highly ritualised contexts – and is the heart of our understanding of what the Study of Religions should engage with. What people think and believe are among the things people do when they do religion. But religion is also the eating or avoiding of food, the making of noises (singing, debating, teaching, praying, invoking and so on), the elaboration of material cultures, and other sensual acts. To conclude, perhaps we can say that religion is as much worn as believed.

Religious Toleration and Peace: Reflections on the RETOPEA project

By John Maiden

Earlier this month members of the OU’s RS department, John Wolffe, Stefanie Sinclair and John Maiden attended the ‘final’ (I use inverted commas, because we hope it is just the start!), of the EU-funded Religious Toleration and Peace (RETOPEA) project. The conference was held in Ohrid, North Macedonia, a country which has a unique recent history of religious toleration and State-building – although its context of two major populations of Orthodox and Muslim citizens, a fairly recent, albeit brief, violent conflict, and sustained grassroots and State efforts to negotiate ethnic and religious differences, means some parallels can be drawn with the religious and political situation in Northern Ireland. The purpose of RETOPEA has been to promote religious and convictional toleration amongst European young people – including North Macedonia youth – and to work with them, as well as policy makers, religious leaders, and civil society actors to propose approaches of ‘learning with history’ to address present-day issues of lived religious diversity.

A 4th century Christian basilica in Ohrid

Ohrid’s long history of religious diversity: a 4th century Christian basilica

The OU team was in Ohrid primarily to reflect on the experience of using filmmaking to enable young people to think about religious diversity in history and the present. In the past four years we have engaged with schools and other educational contexts in the UK, Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Spain, North Macedonia, and Poland. The films, which we call Docutubes, are made by young people, based on their own experiences and inspired also by over 400 texts, pictures, and films about religious diversity available on the RETOPEA website. Some of the amazing films the young people have made are now online.

What are some of the main reflections we had on our experiences of working with young people? I select here a few:

A photo of the RETOPEA conference

Preparing for the RETOPEA conference – G20 style…

– That young people and teachers need to be given the opportunity to engage with historic counter-narratives of religious toleration – of examples in history of religious tolerance and coexistence. Too often, young people, through the influence of educational textbooks, the classroom, and in the popular media they encounter, think of the past only in terms of prejudice and intolerance.

– That ‘safe spaces’, like the contexts we created in order to make Docutubes, can allow young people to have very constructive discussions about potentially controversial issues. The young people with which we worked were more than able to engage with each other about these matters.

– That creative ‘deep learning’ approaches, like Docutubes, can help bridge the gap between past and present for young people – and, furthermore, prompt them to think ‘outside the box’ about issues of religious diversity now.

Teachers and youth workers who would like to run workshops themselves can also now take a FREE Badged Open Course through The Open University, ‘Young people and religion: creative learning with history’. If you want to find out more about Docutubes you can also contact the OU’s RETOPEA team directly at retopea@open.ac.uk.

Royal Funerals: Tradition and Innovation

By John Wolffe

The stately progress of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin from Balmoral Castle to her eventual resting place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, evokes an aura of timeless continuity. There are indeed significant recurrent features of royal funerals – especially those of the monarch – that span the generations. There is heraldic symbolism, a procession of some kind and a funeral service in church. Nevertheless, many features of present-day royal funerals are in reality of relatively recent origin, while as in a funeral of a private individual, circumstances and personalities elaborate and modify the details.

The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a period of elaborate royal funerals reaching their apogee in the funeral of James VI and I in 1625. Thereafter, however, the discontinuity of the Civil War and interregnum had a lasting impact.  With the single exception of Mary II’s funeral in 1694 which was on a grander scale in apparent response to the tragedy of her premature death, later seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century royal funerals were on a relatively modest scale. This trend was accentuated in the reign of George III when funerals retreated almost entirely within the walls of Windsor Castle. George III in 1820, George IV (1830), William IV (1837) and Prince Albert (1861) all died in the castle and were buried there without their coffins ever leaving the precincts.

Only with Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 was there a return to a large-scale public event. Her death at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in 1901 necessitated transporting her coffin to the mainland and then on by train to Windsor. The fleet was lined up in review as the royal yacht crossed the Solent and there was then a procession across London from Victoria to Paddington. In accordance with the late Queen’s instructions the coffin was carried on a gun carriage, although the decision to have it pulled by naval ratings was a piece of inspired improvisation when the horses broke their traces at Windsor railway station. One potential innovation was, however, rejected: concern about objections to prayer for the dead meant that the King had to be dissuaded from including the Russian Kontakion in the funeral service.

The Queen's children surround her coffin during her lying-in-state

The Queen’s children surround her coffin during her lying-in-state. Source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/content/dam/royal-family/2022/09/12/TELEMMGLPICT000309057604_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqRo0U4xU-30oDveS4pXV-Vv4Xpit_DMGvdp2n7FDd82k.jpeg?imwidth=680

The main innovation for Edward VII in 1910 (see top of post) was the introduction of a public lying in state in Westminster Hall, intended to symbolise close democratic ties between monarchy and parliament in the context of the constitutional crisis arising from the Asquith government’s endeavours to curtail the powers of the House of Lords. The advent of broadcast media further enhanced a sense of wider public participation at the funerals of George V in 1936 and George VI in 1952. Religious services began to acquire an ecumenical dimension.

Events following Elizabeth II’s death are building further on these funerals of twentieth-century monarchs but also on the more recent experience of the funerals of Princess Diana in 1997 and the Queen Mother in 2002, notably in locating the main funeral service in Westminster Abbey rather than the much smaller St George’s Chapel. The late Queen was the first monarch to die in Scotland since the union of the Crowns in 1603, which has provided the opportunity for substantial unprecedented ceremonial in Edinburgh. The vigil of the Queen’s four children around the coffin in St Giles Cathedral is now described in the media as ‘traditional’, although there have in fact only been two previous instances, of George V’s four sons in 1936 and of the Queen Mother’s four grandsons in 2002. Broadcast media coverage is all-pervasive to an extent that would have been deemed obtrusive as well as technically impossible in 1952. The paradoxical appeal of such events is their capacity to appeal to a sense of historic continuity while also responding in innovative ways to present-day circumstances.

This post was published in collaboration with the Ecclesiastical History Society, of which John Wolffe was President between 2013-14. Their version is here: https://eccleshistsoc.wordpress.com/2022/09/16/royal-funerals-tradition-and-innovation/

How can we teach religion in schools better?  

By Suzanne Newcombe  

The Religious Studies Department here at the Open University has just reached the conclusion of an 18-month collaborative project exploring the thoughts of stakeholders ‘outside the classroom’ on Religious Education in schools and the proposals for shifting the school paradigm to an approach called ‘Religion and Worldviews.’  

Proposed Religion and Worldviews national entitlement summary:

Pupils are entitled to be taught, by well qualified and resourced teachers, knowledge and understanding about:
· what religion is and worldviews are, and how they are studied;
· the impact of religion and worldviews on individuals, communities and societies;
· the diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews in society;
· the concepts, language and ways of knowing that help us organise and make sense of our knowledge and understanding of religion and worldviews; the human quest for meaning, so that they are prepared for life in a diverse world and have space to recognise, reflect on and take responsibility for the development of their own personal worldview.
(NATRE, CoRE, RE: Today, n.d.).

Over the last year, this research group has explored three key research questions with a series of focus groups and surveys. We asked for opinions and impressions on 1) the current State of Religious Education in schools, 2) the ‘Religion and Worldviews’ proposal and 3) What is needed to improve the quality and public perception of RE teaching. We explored these issues with:   

  • Religious and Non-Religious Community Interest Groups (31 focus group participants in 4 geographically distinct locations) 
  • Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACRE) Members (9 focus group participants and 144 survey responses)  
  • Parents (3 focus group participants and 45 survey responses) 
  • School Leadership, i.e. Multi-Academy Trust leadership, School Heads and other senior leaders (6 focus group participants) 
  • Academics and Policy Professionals (14 focus group participants) 

The general conclusions from this process were that there is a need and appetite for greater engagement between the different stakeholders (Harvey et al. 2022). Schools, SACREs, community groups and parents all expressed enthusiasm for working together. It was also suggested that support and best practice guidance on this would be appreciated. Academics were keen to host and/or facilitate networking meetings and provide content to inspire school-level pupils (e.g. see the OpenLearn courses Why not ‘World Religions’? and Census Stories).  

Greater community engagement could also contribute to greater positive perceptions of RE/RW education and hence to greater critical religious literacy in the long term. More interaction with academics could ensure that school and university-level teaching on religion can lead to better alignment between educational levels. The importance of better integrating school and university-level approaches to the study of religion was also a focus of a recent report by the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association. 

Another important conclusion from the project research is a need for more clarity and better messaging around ‘What is being taught and why?’ in Religious Education. While the British public has generally negative attitudes towards religion in general (Harvey et al. 2021b, p. 6), once the aims of religious education in schools are explained, i.e. the national entitlement summary above, opinions about the importance of RE in promoting social cohesion and ethical development are generally widely appreciated 

To start the process of improving the understanding and messaging around the contemporary religious education agenda to stakeholders outside the classroom, we have developed a new OpenLearn course entitled An Education in Religion and Worldviews 

The Religion and Worldviews proposal is a potentially effective container for bringing forward discussions which can aid community cohesion, teaching productive dialogue across different beliefs and backgrounds. This does not require complete agreement on definitions of ‘religion’ or ‘worldviews’ – or even the specific content of a local school’s curriculum.  

In fact, learning to work with contested concepts and dialogue with people’s deeply held sense of identity, is one of the most important aspects of high-quality Religious Education. It also teaches skills that are in high demand in our twenty-first century economy in which 80% of the workforce is in the service sector.  

 

Project Partners 

 

 

 

 

 

Funded by:  

 

 

 

Further resources:  

Cooling, T., Bowie, B. and Panjwani, F. (2020) ‘Worldviews in Religious Education’, Theos and Canterbury Christchurch University. Available at: https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/ research/ 2020/ 10/ 21/ worldviews-in-religious-education (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Culham St Gabriel’s (2021) ‘Public Perception’ report of commissioned research: https://www.cstg.org.uk/activities/campaigns/public-perception/  

Harvey, Sarah (2021a) ‘Baseline Report 1: Setting the Context’ 15 July. Inform website. Available at: https://inform.ac/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Baseline-Report-1-Setting-the-Context.pdf   

Harvey, Sarah with assistance from Ruby Forrester, Suzanne Newcombe, Farzeen Shahzad and Silke Steidinger (2021b) ‘Baseline Report 2: Public Perception: Student and Teacher Views’ 25 November. Inform website. Available at: https://inform.ac/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Baseline-Report-2-Public-Perception-Student-and-Teacher-Views1.pdf 

Harvey, Sarah with Carrie Alderton, Amy Ark, Phil Champain, Suzanne Newcombe and Anna Lockley-Scott. (2022) Promoting the Exploration of Religion and Worldviews in Schools: Insights Report. 4 April. Faith and Belief Forum Website. Available at: https://faithbeliefforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Insights-Report-Final.pdf  

NATRE, CoRE, RE: Today (n.d.) ‘A National Plan for RE in England Summary’. Available at: https://www.natre.org.uk/ uploads/ Free%20Resources/ A%20National%20Plan%20for%20RE%20-%20CoRE%20summary%20final%20with%20headers.pdf (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Ofsted (2021) ‘Research review series: religious education’, 21 May, HMSO. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/ government/ publications/ research-review-series-religious-education/ research-review-series-religious-education#contents (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Research Excellence in Religious Studies at The Open University 

By Graham Harvey 

We are pleased to share news about the results of the UK’s national audit of research: the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The results are out this week and more information will follow. However, we are keen to celebrate our research as well as our teaching and learning contributions.  We’ll also take this opportunity to briefly update you on highlights of what we’ve been doing and what we plan to do.  

The REF results provide scores for the quality of publications, based on a submission of a specified number (23) of ‘outputs’ that we considered to be among our best. We selected among our publications to reflect research by our 11 colleagues. The REF panel rated 83% to be world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in the same terms. In other words, they considered that anyone researching a topic relevant to 4*-rated publications must engage with those works, and would certainly be wise to engage with the 3* works too. We are pleased that an increasing number of our publications are ‘open access’, i.e., freely available to read through the websites of relevant publishers or journals. The Open University’s Open Research Online repository makes even more of our work available in pre-publication versions (which are usually very close to the final published versions).  

In addition to the selection of published work, we also provided a statement about our ‘research environment’ for evaluation. This sets out how we facilitate, encourage, support and reward research by department colleagues and our postgraduate researchers. It also evidences our contributions to the wider national and international community of Religious Studies researchers (e.g., as peer reviewers of research and publication proposals, book and journal editors, learned society committee members, conference organisers and more). The expert panel rated 75% of our research environment statement to be at an internationally excellent level.  

We were also required to submit Impact Case Studies (ICS) to evidence how our research has changed and/or benefited the world beyond academia. We selected two to illustrate the coherence of a vibrant research community and culture focused on ‘contemporary religion in historical perspective’. Our first ICS demonstrated the ways in which the research of Prof John Wolffe, Dr John Maiden and Dr Gavin Moorhead has increased the present-day impact of religious history and archives. Our second ICS set out how Prof Graham Harvey’s ‘New Animism’ research has had an impact on creativity, culture and society. The REF panel categorised 50% of these case studies to be 4* and 3*. We celebrate these results and will say more about the research and impact involved in future blogs.  

Existing blogs already show how all members of the department conduct research and contribute to effecting positive change in the world. We have not rested since completing our REF submission but have sought to enhance our research and engagement with wider communities. We are also devoted to producing and delivering similarly world-leading and research-based learning opportunities for both our students and all learners. We have been joined by a twelfth colleague whose work extends the range of issues about which we research and teach – in particular engaging with ‘non-religion’. We remain strongly committed to using the OU’s technological expertise and online reach to engage publics with research which enhances religious ‘literacy’. A recent example of this is the AHRC-funded ‘Census Stories’ project, which used innovative storytelling techniques to engage people from Milton Keynes with data on demographic changes in religion and ethnicity in the UK. This is now a free public online course, which enables others to use the same approaches to understanding the complexities of religious and non-religious identities in their own localities. We are also set to continue our engagement with young people on religious diversity through the European Commission funded RETOPEA (Religious Toleration and Peace) project. An online ‘Badged Open Course’ will soon be released, designed for high-school teachers, youth workers and museum staff, which equips them to help young people make ‘docutubes’ – short ‘Vlog’ style documentaries – about religious diversity past and present. These are just some of the ways in which RS at the OU is providing world-leading and internationally excellent research-based resources for everyone interested in understanding and debating religion in many arenas.  

“Big, if true”: Belief in the subjunctive

In 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Ministry of Defence recruited a team of psychics to track down bin Laden’s alleged “Weapons of Mass Destruction” with remote viewing. According to recently declassified documents, the MoD literally borrowed the playbook on using remote viewing in military intelligence that the CIA had developed during the Cold War, as made famous by Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.

They didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction – but then, there weren’t any to find.

Two decades later, in the wake of shock populist election victories in the US and UK, and as COVID brought vaccination fears to the surface again, it is widely claimed that mis- and disinformation on social media is the root cause. People are being exposed unwittingly to “fake news” on the Internet, and this, it is claimed, is at the root of todays’ hyperpartisan and conspiratorial politics. Nevertheless, the empirical data is clear that the influence of online misinformation on political events is minimal.

What do these two examples have in common? A too-simple understanding of belief.

Our first reaction to the MoD employing psychics might be incredulity that such senior military figures could “believe in” remote viewing. But it is clear that the military’s position was agnosticif it could be done, it would confer a great military advantage. Given the comparatively low cost of a few experiments, then a few trials could be entirely justified – whether or not one entirely “believes”.

The connection between behaviour and belief becomes easier to understand when we see belief in the subjunctive. For example, my dad has severe rheumatoid arthritis that causes him chronic pain. He tried acupuncture when it was offered to him, and it didn’t matter if he believed it. It either worked, or it didn’t, and if it did, he’d keep using it.

At the same time, if we assume that someone sharing a conspiracy theory on Facebook means that that person fully believe it, then we will see our feeds as awash with irrationality. But the data is clear: engagement is not the same as accepting. In fact, most people will only accept things which fit their already-existing preconceptions. And while the Internet may be “methodologically convenient”, it is clear that offline networks and legacy media (especially that owned by Rupert Murdoch) drive behaviour more successfully.

Creator: Ted Eytan. Via https://mancunion.com/2021/01/12/opinion-the-republican-party-is-complicit-in-the-attack-on-capitol-hill/. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s a difficult shift to make, because the idea of belief is deeply engrained in the post-Protestant worldview. Belief – or its more specifically religious variant, faith – is central to how we think about religion. Indeed, in legal cases involving religious exemptions, such as this one, the question of whether a belief is “sincerely-held” can be pivotal (as I wrote about in a previous post). Yet, as our recent project on the census has shown, religious identities are complex, and beliefs are changeable, multiple and sometimes contradictory, and tied up with other aspects of our identity. And belief might not even be the reason you identify with a religion anyway.

In short, if we want to understand the connection between knowledge and social action, religious or otherwise, we need a more sophisticated model of belief. It’s harder to see things as black and white if we don’t see belief as an either/or binary.

Big, if true.

(Images © Crown Copyright/MOD 2022)

John Ogden (1941-2021) 

I went to the funeral of some friends’ father a few months ago. John Ogden was a good person. He was a giant of a man in humaneness, intelligence, and capacity; loved by his family and friends; and a lover of Manchester City (everyone has their blind spots…). He had a unique sense of humour which would easily have held its own with stand-up comics. If you spent time with John, you laughed, almost cathartically. His absence is going to be felt deeply, and by many, amongst his family and in the Christian congregation he helped lead over decades.  

John had been a leader in a church in Salford, northern England. The congregation was a Brethren assembly when John and his wife Gwyn joined in 1973. However, the church, like various other Brethren assemblies in places such as the UK, New Zealand (see Peter Lineham’s scholarly work) and Australia, became increasingly “charismatic” – as in emphasising the reality and power of the Holy Spirit – from the 1980s. There appears to be something about Brethren spirituality which seems to predispose a desire to seek the presence and embodied experience of God. John, with others, steered the congregation in a charismatic direction. In the 1990s, he and other leaders from Salford, and tens of thousands of others worldwide, visited a new global node for charismatic Christianity: the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. It was said that here was a new ‘move’ or ‘blessing’ of the Spirit, a distinctive experience of God’s love.   

The funeral included something I had never seen before. In 1960, John started to keep a reading diary. Every book he read, of whatever genre, was recorded. The long list of all these texts was placed on the wall of the chapel, for our interest.  

His reading tastes – over 1,700 books – were eclectic. Indeed, even the first two books on the list offer quite the juxtaposition: Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) and A. J. P. Taylor’s The Hapsburg Monarchy: 1980-1918 (1941).  The list revealed interests as wide-ranging as Christian theology and testimony, country music, military history, local Manchester and Salford history, the National Football League (NFL), Russian travel, and cricket. He covered impressive ground in modern novels. After retirement, in particular, he was a voracious reader. To see the list on display at the funeral was an insight into the interior life of a man – his intellectual and emotional formation – over many decades.  

For a historian of Christianity, the list is a unique, rare source. For nearly a decade, I have been researching charismatic, or ‘Spirit-filled’, media and networks. What does the list tell us? 

Certainly, it underlines it is all too easy to make straightforward assumptions about charismatic spirituality. John read, of course, classic charismatic and pentecostal texts. Indeed, from around 1987, like many other British Christians, he was devouring them: Dennis Bennett, Arthur Wallis, Derek Prince, Jamie Buckingham etc., all the luminaries of the charismatic renewal. But the list indicates also how textual influences on John’s spirituality varied and changed over time. From the 1990s, one of the most consistent spiritual influences in John’s reading life became the Puritan divines: Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavell, John Owen, and others. Indeed, outside of an academic theology department, you would struggle to find a Christian as well read in Puritan spirituality. (In the final months of John’s Life, he read the Puritans deeply, including, and movingly, Richard Sibbes Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled, Joseph Alleine’s A Sure Guide to Heaven and William Perkins’ A Salve for a Sick Man). In the 1990s, also, John was turning to the medieval mystics, Teresa of Avilla, Julian of Norwich, and others. At the end of the decade, numerous works by contemporary Catholic twentieth century contemplative and devotional writers, such as the American Trappist Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, appear. Spiritual influences were broadening and deepening.  

As a young undergraduate student in the late 1990s, I remember hearing John preach on the Old Testament book of Song of Songs. He read the text allegorically. The sermon was an articulate and heartfelt case for ‘spiritual union with Christ’. The congregation was at this stage impacted by the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church phenomenon, and I observed around me a collective eagerness to ‘soak’ in the love of God. John had visited Toronto: but who was John reading at this stage? The list reveals he was drawing on historic works on Song of Songs: the works of Madame Guyon and Bernard of Clairvoux and others. The jet-age meets medieval mysticism. 

What might John’s reading list tell a historian of Christianity? First, it hints at the diverse and complex lineages – for example, contemplative, mystic, Reformed and pentecostal – which have contributed to charismatic spirituality. These influences, of course, have varied markedly across church traditions and between individuals. The story of these individual Christians – the ‘thick detail’ of ordinary leaders and laity, rather than the ‘big names’ of the charismatic world – are a rich mine of information for understanding ‘Spirit-filled’ movements in their everyday context.  Second, to merely suggest that charismatics such as John were ‘revival-chasers’ (e.g. to Toronto), would be to overlook the significant, text-constructed, intellectual and experiential thought-world which could provide a spiritual framework, and which in John’s case was both consistent and extendable. Third, John’s patterns of devotion in reading point towards a much larger charismatic theme: of resourcement. While charismatic Christians will often emphasise the ‘new wine’ that God is offering – they are ‘presentist’ in this sense – they have, as John did in the 1990s, often referred to historic writings, the resources of the Christian tradition, the words of the Christian dead, to situate their experiences.  

A meta-theme of John Ogden’s spirituality was the idea of the Christian as ‘beloved’ (indeed, he would, tongue-in-cheek, refer to himself as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’). I suspect that through his reading, he became convinced that the ‘new thing’ of Toronto was an ‘old thing’ – a mystical experience of divine love within Christian spirituality. 

Dr John Maiden is the author of Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-world and Global Christianity, 1945-1980 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).