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The Last Acceptable Prejudice? Is it OK to Hate Catholicism?

By John Wolffe

At a time when there is rightly widespread concern about antisemitism and Islamophobia it may seem counter-intuitive to focus attention on a currently less conspicuous form of religious and anti-religious prejudice, anti-Catholicism. However, this is just what we shall be doing over the next three years with a grant from the Leverhulme Trust to explore ‘Anti-Catholicism in the UK since 1945: An Interdisciplinary Study of Prejudice’.

‘The last acceptable prejudice’ is the subtitle of a study by Philip Jenkins of anti-Catholicism in the present-day United States which raises significant questions for the UK. Jenkins argues that anti-Catholic prejudice remains widespread in America and is ‘acceptable’ because it is closely associated with otherwise liberal and progressive causes such as contraception, the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people. Moreover, sexual abuse by Catholic priests is perceived as symptomatic of overall institutional failure and corruption. When Pope Benedict XVI made a state visit to Britain in September 2010, a ‘Protest the Pope’ rally in central London highlighted similar concerns.


While these issues appear highly contemporary, anti-Catholicism in Britain has a long history, dating back to the Reformation. Indeed, the very word ‘Protestant’ originated in that initial protest against the authority of the Papacy and the Catholic hierarchy. Our project focuses on the much more recent past but still covers a long period of enormous change, beginning with the immediate post-Second World War period, when the religious transformations of the 1960s including the Second Vatican Council still lay in the future. We will also be taking a ‘four nations’ approach, contrasting the normally more muted anti-Catholicism of England and Wales, with the more overt sectarianism notably evident in the ‘Old Firm’ rivalry of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, and in the ongoing divisions between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ communities in Northern Ireland. The latter are deeply rooted in Irish history, as illustrated by this Orange Order banner commemorating the siege of Drogheda by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1649.

Orange march, Belfast 12 July 2011, Photo: John Bell, used with permission.

The project will be a collaboration between two historians, myself and our newly-appointed colleague Dr Erin Geraghty, and a team of psychologists, including Prof Jovan Byford and Prof John Dixon. In bringing together historical and psychological approaches to the study of prejudice, we shall seek to develop deeper understanding of anti-Catholicism through exploring a variety of questions. How has the balance between ‘traditional’ Protestant anti-Catholicism and more contemporary secular anti-Catholicism shifted over the last eighty years? What exactly are those with anti-Catholic views opposed to? – Catholics as individuals, the Catholic Church as an institution, the Pope in particular? In what ways can people brought up as Catholics become anti-Catholic?  How might we clarify the boundary between legitimate criticism of Catholicism on theological or moral grounds, and less rational prejudiced attitudes? What overt and more subtle forms does prejudice itself take? How do these differences help us to understand the diverse political and religious characteristics of different parts of the UK?

Our wider ambition is through the case study of anti-Catholicism to show how history, religious studies and psychology can complement each other in developing methodologies that enable us better to understand other forms of prejudice. We look forward to reporting on the progress of the project in future contributions to this blog.

Westminster Education Policy Briefing: innovative pedagogies for teaching religious diversity

By John Maiden 

On 18 January 2024, the Open University and the project Religious Toleration and Peace (RETOPEA), was mentioned as an “exciting” teaching innovation during a Lords Grand Committee on Religious Education in schools. The project was described as presenting young people with an opportunity to “think outside the box about their own experiences of religious diversity, tolerance and intolerance”. The following week, the OU team was able to follow up on this with an education policy briefing event in Westminster. Here we presented some of the outcomes and potentialities of the project, and particularly our ‘Docutubes’ methodology. This is an approach through which young people have been encouraged to learn creatively about religious diversity in past, present and their own experiences, by writing, making and editing their own short films.

The Docutubes approach was first developed as part of a Horizon 2020 funded project in collaboration with various universities and partners across Europe. Since this has ended, further support from the Culham St Gabriel Trust and the OU’s Open Societal Challenges programme, has enabled the OU team to test the methodology in a number of new contexts, including the Muslim-majority countries of Albania and Jordan, in a wider range of English schools, and in both a Protestant and Catholic school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In the first half of the policy event, members of the project team, John Maiden, Stefanie Sinclair and John Wolffe, along with Karel Van Nieuwenhuyse, a RETOPEA colleague from KU Leuven, explained the Docutubes approach. We spoke about how engaging young people with an accessible online archive of primary sources – ‘thinking like historians’ – and then the creative learning approach of Docutubes, had demonstrated the potential to address common ‘presentist’ understandings of the religious diversity. Specifically, the approach is able to challenge the widely held views about the past which associate religion with conflict. We then heard from two educators, Richard Brown (Head Teacher, Urswick School, London) and Ruairi Geehan (Mercy College, Belfast) about their experiences of RETOPEA, as well as Dr Renee Hattar, Director of the Jordanian Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, which hosted a Doctubes workshop in 2023. Finally, a young people who had experienced a Docutubes workshop described his own positive experiences of the project, working alongside young people from other religious traditions, in the context of an interfaith youth camp organised by the Rose Castle Foundation.

In the second half (pictured), we heard responses from expert practitioners in the fields of teaching, peace-making and interfaith: Helen Snelson (Teacher Education, University of York, Chair of the Historical Association’s Secondary Committee and a EuroClio Ambassador); Rosie Dawson (Freelance religion journalist, documentary maker and radio producer); David Porter (Strategy Consultant for the Archbishop of Canterbury); Riaz Ravat (Contributor to the Commission on Islam in the UK, Prime Minister’s Extremism Task Force and the Commission on Religion & Belief in Public Life). Here, there was enthusiasm for the approach, and particularly how it might provide spaces for young people to talk with each other about potentially difficult or controversial issues in constructive ways. There were also challenges. How can we help ‘time poor’ teachers, for example of History and RE, to incorporate Docutubes into their curriculum? Given that negative views about religious diversity often begin in the home, are there ways in which Docutubes could equip teachers and young people to challenge stereotypes and generalisations which might learned from parents and family?

The OU team (including Katelin Teller) plan to continue to develop and expand the use of the Docutubes methodology, and this event enabled us both to raise awareness and see new potentialities. We are grateful to all the participants for their contributions.

Watch this space! And in the meantime, for more information on the Docutubes approach, see this OU Badged Open Course.

The value of ephemera in research

By Jackie Hosein 

When researching a particular topic, place, or time, ephemera – newspapers, magazines, leaflets, posters, and so on – can be a valuable source of information and context. My research is currently focused on the town of Glastonbury and its role in the New Age from the mid-1980s and, as might be expected from a place with an active alternative community, there is a rich history of ephemera from that time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were several Glastonbury-based publications reflecting local events and interests. Some only ran for a few issues or even just one, but still gave an insight into the debates and preoccupations of the time. One of the earliest of these was The Torc edited by Patrick Benham which ran for fifteen issues, from 1971 to 1975. The first issue featured articles on psychometry on Glastonbury Tor, and the yin and yang of food, as well as local events, news, recipes, poetry, and for sale adverts. A short-lived title The Glastonbury Thorn, produced two issues; 1979 and 1980, and represented a feminist viewpoint (see Figure 1). It was edited by Kathy Jones, who went on to establish the Goddess community and conference in Glastonbury.

Figure 1. The Glastonbury Thorn

At this point, there was a relatively small alternative community, and few New Age businesses of events, in Glastonbury. The mid-1980s saw a shift in the town. Local manufacturers had closed, and in the recession of the early 1980s chain stores disappeared from the High Street and existing local shops struggled to stay open. However, the town’s proximity to the Glastonbury Festival, and growing reputation as a New Age centre, attracted people involved in Green politics and the festival circuit. The government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme was set up around this time to help small businesses, requiring only a start-up bank balance of £1000. This created opportunities for New Age businesses and initiatives catering for the increasing number of visitors coming to Glastonbury to experience its spiritual side. Local legend tells of the same £1000 being passed round to several potential entrepreneurs before being returned to its original owner.

The Glastonbury Communicator started as a newsletter about events at the Assembly Rooms, which had been restored and run by the local community as an arts and performance space. It expanded to include other news and events in Glastonbury, and ran for eighteen issues, 1984 to 1988. Local, national, and international news was featured, ranging from concerns about local limestone paving slabs to several articles highlighting the famine in Eritrea.

Unique Publications, which holds an archive of many of the publications mentioned in this article, is a small business started in 1985 by Bruce Garrard. Like several others, he had settled in Glastonbury after being evicted from the peace camp at Molesworth, and was subsidised initially by the previously mentioned Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Unique Publications published The Times of Avalonia (see Figure 2), described by Garrard as a satirical response to the excesses of the local press at a time when New Age travellers, camped at nearby Greenlands Farm in the aftermath of the Battle of the Beanfield, were the target of local outrage. It ran for eleven issues from 1985 to 1988. Its successor, The Glastonbury Gazette (see Figure 3), was an attempt to go more mainstream in its coverage, for example publishing a series of more balanced articles about the travellers. It ran for seven monthly issues in 1989. Renamed the Glastonbury Times, it ran for a further five issues from 1990 to 1991.


Figure 2. The Times of Avalonia            Figure 3. The Glastonbury Gazette

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Women covering their hair – why does it matter in Iran?

By Hugh Beattie

In the early autumn of 2022 widespread protests broke out in a number of Iranian cities. These followed the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16, in hospital in Teheran. Members of the Morality Police (Guardian Patrol) had arrested her because, they claimed, she had not covered her hair completely and so had broken the rules regarding women’s dress. They beat her severely and this was almost certainly responsible for her death. After killing some 500 protestors, the security forces succeeded in suppressing the unrest that followed. In July 2023 the Morality Police, who had suspended searches for and arrests of women not covering their hair properly in public spaces, resumed them.

Iran has been in the news again lately because of the government’s continued attempts to force women to follow the dress code. A few weeks ago the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who is currently serving a 10-year jail term in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her fight against the oppression of women in Iran. On October 28 2023 the teenager Armita Geravand died in hospital after being in a coma for nearly four weeks, having suffered a traumatic brain injury following a fall on a tube train in Tehran. It has been alleged that she fell when members of the Morality Police tried to arrest her because she was not wearing a headscarf, although the government denies this. A well-known human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoude, attended Armita Geravand’s funeral early in November. At the funeral members of the Morality Police violently arrested Sotoudeh because they said that her hair was not covered properly. She was jailed for three weeks before being released on bail.

The Iranian government is obviously determined not to make any concessions as regards women’s rights. In fact it is currently trying to restrict them further. The President, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hardline conservative who appears to have been involved in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. During the summer the government introduced a new Chastity and Hijab bill which will introduce much severer penalties for women who do not follow the dress code. Parliament has passed the bill, but the Guardian Council, which vets new laws to make sure they conform to Islamic principles, has not yet approved it. Currently women who do not follow the code can be sentenced to up to two months in prison and payment of a small fine. If the new law does come into force, the maximum sentence will be raised to ten years in prison; offenders may be flogged, and pay much larger fines (around £550). The new law contains various other restrictive provisions. For instance shops and restaurants which do not ensure that female customers follow the dress code may be penalised, and there will be increased use of security cameras in public places to identify and track down women not doing so.

Why does women’s dress (and particularly completely covering their hair) matter so much? Why is the Islamic Republic spending political capital on an issue which doesn’t seem to be a very important one, in doing so upsetting many of its own people and attracting criticism from around the world?

The main reason seems to be that particular styles of women’s dress have become increasingly politicised since 1936 when the Iranian ruler, Reza Shah, decreed that women should no longer wear a veil. By banning the veil Reza Shah intended to show how modern and secular his government was. Another example of this politicisation is the way that during the relatively socially liberal 1970s, some women returned to wearing a chador (cloak) or some other form of ‘modest dress’ to express their rejection of the westernizing and authoritarian rule of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1978/9, the government of the new Islamic Republic of Iran demanded that women wear modest dress and cover their hair with a headscarf. Since then challenging this dress code has been a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government. As one woman commented, after taking part in a protest which was violently repressed by the police, ‘we realized the importance of hijab for the Islamic Republic. It was more than just putting a scarf on, we realized that hijab is the identity of [the] Islamic Republic, so to speak’. By refusing to follow the dress code, many women are not just expressing a wish to dress as they please, they are signalling their opposition to the government and its values. It seems that the regime fears that if it gives way on the hijab issue, there will be pressure for it to make other concessions, which could seriously undermine its authority.

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Hope for peace at the pro-Palestinian march on Armistice Day

By Maria Nita

Saturday, 11th November 2023, Armistice Day. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza in October 2023 weekly pro-Palestinian protest marches have been held in London, on a Saturday. On this occasion the march started at midday, an hour after the solemn annual ceremony at the Cenotaph – albeit this was eventually disrupted by a group of far-right counter-protestors attempting to reach the pro-Palestinian march and clashing with police.  

Children’s Shoes Memorial – Extinction Rebellion protest action, November 2023, London (Photo Copyright: Extinction Rebellion Families)

In Trafalgar Square Extinction Rebellion activists showed their support for the pro-Palestinian march by staging an evocative children’s shoes memorial, for both Israeli and Palestinian young victims. Shoe memorials that mark collective tragedies draw inspiration from those commemorating the genocide against Jewish people, with well-known displays in the Holocaust memorial museums of Auschwitz and Washington DC. Based on some of the public accusations against the pro-Palestinian marches being antisemitic – they were called ‘hate marches’ by ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman – even an inadvertent connection with the Jewish genocide may strike people as inappropriate, but it is important to emphasise what many protestors have stressed in public statements, namely that the marches are pro-Palestinian, not anti-Jewish. 

Protestors are accusing the Israeli state of war crimes, and not the Jewish nation. Moreover, the ‘Jews for Ceasefire’ group have also been attending the pro-Palestinian marches, to oppose both the war crimes being committed by the Israeli state, as well as the criminal actions of Hamas – the terrorist group who, on the 7th of October 2023, attacked Jewish communities, killing civilians and taking hostages, including children.  

The pro-Palestinian march, which started in Hyde Park and ended in front of the US embassy, called for the UK and US governments to ask Israel for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Many of the protestors’ placards pointed a finger to the seeming silent complicity of the UK and US governments for their failure to denounce and sanction the state of Israel, with such slogans as: ‘the UK and US shield Israel from accountability for its political crimes’, ‘their blood on your hands’, ‘bombing babies and killing children is not self-defence’, ‘genocide is not self-defence’, ‘stop war crimes in Gaza’, ‘it’s not complicated, it’s genocide’, ‘I can’t believe I have to protest against Genocide’, ‘one child is being killed every 10 minutes in Gaza’, ‘cease fire now allow aid in Gaza’, ‘stop the massacre’. 

Protest action, November 2023, Edinburgh (Photo: David Robertson)

Globally, since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, there has been a rise in both antisemitic and Islamophobic motivated crimes, especially in the US, UK and Europe. At the peaceful 11 November 2023 pro-Palestinian march, with an attendance of some 300,000 people, the police reported that only a very small number of participants were being investigated for antisemitic statements – yet is important to distinguish between some of the statements of support to Palestine that are understood by some groups (but not others) as antisemitic, and the comparatively small amount of overt antisemitism at the events. The controversial chant ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea’ was interpreted by some as a call for the destruction of the state of Israel – in other words where would the state of Israel be, if Palestine were to take up the territory from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea? Protesters defended the chant in media statements, explaining that it refers to freedom, self-determination and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, and an end to what has been described in some media and scholarship as the Israeli apartheid of Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian territories (Pappé, ed. 2021; Rifkin, 2017). Protest banners citing late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish sought to give voice to this collective experience of suffering of alienation, pointing beyond the current crisis: ‘“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”’. 

Protest action, November 2023, Edinburgh (Photo: David Robertson)

Criticism and debate emerged from the fact that the pro-Palestinian march was going to be taking place on Armistice Day. The disagreement exposed the deeper ambiguity of Armistice Day: on one hand, recalling the atrocities of war and the need to build and maintain peace, whilst on the other hand, glorifying war through notions of martyrdom and the celebration of veterans – for an in-depth discussion of a century-long history around the complexities and controversies of the day, see Wolffe, 2019. Yet pro-Palestinian protestors on the Armistice Day march addressed the criticism of the march being disrespectful on their protest banners, by pointing to the appropriateness of asking for a ceasefire on such a day. Their slogans read: ‘Remembrance = action we take to prevent all wars’ and ‘Armistice for Palestine’. The controversy around holding the protest on Armistice Day brought up to the intersectionality of religious identity and issues of racial and ethnic equality and conflict, with protestors proclaiming on their banners: ‘“Never Forget” is not reserved for white people’ – thus addressing the far-right declared intention to keep the day as a national event. 

The media and social media had abounded in claims about pro-Palestinian marches being infiltrated by Hamas sympathisers. Hamas, from ‘Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah’ (HMS) meaning ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ – is a violent, fundamentalist movement founded 1987, with roots in the post-colonial era of the early 20th century, when European powers had colonised much of the Middle East. This means the movement has been active for close to 4 decades, drawing on a deeply rooted anti-colonial ideology. It is thus worth remembering that whilst the present humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unprecedented, the impact of the decades long Israeli – Palestinian conflict is not new, and its ongoing trauma has global reverberations and connections to ethnic and religious identities.  

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Solstice in the Anthropocene

Maria Nita

Let me first take you back some 47 years. It is 19th of June 1976 at Stonehenge. In anticipation of the solstice a new group of people are coming to meet the stones. Many are coming from London, others from across the country, a small number from abroad. The British press struggles to represent them. They go with a sardonic-colonial-anthropological shade, as if they are reporting on a distant, far away tribe, unknown to us modern people. Many of the portraits of these early festival goers are caustic – after all the hippies had been in circulation for a couple of decades by this point, and this derisive tone is almost the middle ground between the desire to either vilify or save them.  Yet, by the mid-seventies, as festivals are becoming bigger events, hippies are no longer the only type of people expected to turn up, and so the media either distinguishes the new tribes from the hippies, or reinforces the well-known laid-back, drug-taking image. Here are a few of these exoticized portraits:

‘He lives for most of the time with his wife Jill, and daughter Alice, aged three, with other Tipi people on a 40 acres farm in South Wales, owned by one of their number. They feed themselves as far as possible from the produce of the farm, make their own clothes, get light from candles and heat from logs built in the middle of the tent, which is so constructed that currents of air carry the smoke out through the top. “I am here for the solstice sun dance” he said. “Stonehenge is a very powerful spiritual centre.’ (‘Warning fails to deter pop enthusiasts at Stonehenge’ in Times, 19 June 1976).

‘The great Stonehenge Strip got under the way yesterday strictly against […] regulations. […] The hippies ignored the ban and rolled up to pitch their tents near the ancient stones above. As you can see (referring to nudity in the adjoining pictures) many didn’t wait for Sunday morning’s druid ceremonies to get in a bit of sun worshiping.’ (‘Rock Bottom!’ Daily Mirror, 19 June 1976).

‘The hippies claim that the ancient stones and the sun are of spiritual significance to them and that the midsummer solstice is a holy date to them’ (‘Festival goes pop – but quietly’, Southern Evening Echo, 19 June 76).

This was the new stage of a revival of the solstice into a new spiritual Contemporary Pagan tradition. But what is the meaning of the highest point in summer in the context of global heating? What is becoming of the festival celebrations of the summer solstice in the Anthropocene? My own research with climate activists, who often draw on Pagan spirituality, suggests that the voices of those who revived the summer solstice as a religious celebration in the 1960s and 1970s are now changing. The stories of the solstice are drying out. We hear instead the otherworldly silent cries of strange future beings – the Red Rebels of Extinction Rebellion marches. This is not a loss – but a transformation – of tradition.

Many scholars have claimed that increased mobility and globalisation in our contemporary world is impacting on the established channels for cultural transmission, leading to increased secularisation and a loss in traditional cultural values. Others have shown that the transmission of religious and other cultural elements may continue despite decline or disruptions in such institutions as the church, communities of place, the traditional family and so on.   We increasingly live in a world dominated by change, uncertainty and risk, and scholars recognised that the implications of living with unprecedented global risk in a detraditionalised society involve the development of new types of subversive movements. (Macnaughton and Urry,1998: 70) Summer festivals developed in this context and against such global trends, during the past five or six decades. And they often had the solstice as a distinct focus.

It is true that over the past five to six decades, festival networks have developed a model drawn from the memorialisation of the free festivals of the 1960. Woodstock’s and Glastonbury’s iconic naked festival bodies were displaying a nostalgic re-enactment of and yearning for a simpler past and community. Especially in the UK, given the links with Stonehenge, the solstice provided a focus for this spiritual revival. But in recent years, transnational festival networks, like the Burning Man festival, have consciously promoted novel and subversive community-oriented spiritual practices.  Modern festivals’ tribal aesthetic may suggest a return to tradition, but in fact many countercultural festivals with roots that go back to the 1960s have acted as acculturative hubs, helping us to make sense of climate change, experiment with surviving in the arid heat of the Nevada desert, and develop an eco-conscious community spirituality (Pike, 2005).

In the context of my own work on festivals and protestivals connected to the British climate movement I have argued that modern festivals, often like the pilgrimage sites of the ancient and pre-modern word, are platforms for innovation, change and acculturation (Nita, 2022). The solstice revival was always culturally subversive, and I would argue it was always making space for cultural change. And never was cultural change more urgently needed than the Anthropocene.

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How Indigenous Women are Driving the Decolonisation of Theory

By Liudmila Nikanorova 

Who is given the authority to theorise?

The voices of Indigenous people, especially women, have been excluded and nearly absent until early- to mid-twentieth-century sources. Although Indigenous women often contributed to the research of visiting ethnographers and anthropologists, especially with translation, their work has almost never been acknowledged or credited. Women were routinely depicted in relation to their men and were mostly mentioned in sections about family, marriage practices, and traditional clothing. In the study of religion, scholars predominantly focused on Indigenous men’s practices since the observers were typically white men. Thus, Indigenous women’s knowledge production was not taken seriously until they themselves entered academic corridors of power.

A recent methodological turn in humanities caused by the emergence of Indigenous and decolonial studies had a major impact on the disciplines of ethnography, anthropology, and religious studies. Suddenly, ‘the objects of study’ could not only speak back but theorise back. As a result, the normative was de-normalised, universals particularised, and the methodological apparatus of academia destabilised. Theory-making is the most powerful academic endeavour, which has been historically dominated by Eurocentric male scholars. Within the last few decades, Indigenous women pushed themselves away from the position of the objectified and silenced others to leading intellectual resistance against colonial systems of knowledge.

While colonial ethnographers and anthropologists were preoccupied with describing exotic others and imposing Western notions of religion, race, culture, and gender, Indigenous women discussed the limits and impact of such approaches. Theorising from the ongoing experiences of coloniality, racism, and gender-based violence, Indigenous women continue to create and claim a place for themselves and for other marginalised voices within academia.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking volume Decolonising Methodologies (1999) was fundamental in the development of Indigenous research, Indigenous standpoint theory, whiteness studies, trauma theory, as well as decolonising work, and Indigenous knowledges approach. By theorising her experiences of encountering colonising knowledges from Māori perspectives, Tuhiwai Smith (1999: 10) pushes her readers to ask:

Whose research is this?

Who owns it?

Whose interests does it serve?

Who will benefit from it?

Who has designed its questions and framed its scope?

Who will carry it out?

Who will write it up?

How will the results be disseminated?[1]


We could further add:

Who is assumed to be a scholar?

Whose knowledges hold positional superiority?

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Cloisters, Durham Cathedral

‘Nones’ in the Cathedral

By Marion Bowman

In the 2021 census, ‘No religion’ was the second most common response (37.2% or 22.2 million people), while ‘for the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”’.

These statistics relating to people who self-identify as being of No Religion—also known as Nones—have been receiving media attention, and Hannah Waite has produced a fascinating report The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? (Theos, 2022). Waite concludes that there are broadly ‘three distinctive types or clusters of Nones’:

“Campaigning Nones” are self-consciously atheistic and hostile to religion; “Tolerant Nones” are broadly atheistic but accepting of (sometimes warm towards) religion; and “Spiritual Nones”, who are characterised by a range of spiritual beliefs and practices, as much as many people who tick the “Religion” box (Waite 2022, 6).

In the course of the ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals Past and Present’ research project, we discovered that people who self-identify as being of No Religion, the Nones, appear to be regularly visiting cathedrals in England today. What are they doing there? And what does this tell us about the internal diversity of this growing demographic?

 The 3-year interdisciplinary AHRC-funded project, ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, past and present’ ( involved partnership with Canterbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral and York Minster (all now Anglican, Church of England), and Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic). The genesis of the project was the fact that both pilgrimage and engaging with cathedrals now appear to be more popular in England than at any point since the Reformation. This popular mapping of meaning onto special places and interest in pilgrimage gives rise to questions such as: ‘Why is this happening now?’, ‘What is going on?’ and, significantly for our purposes here, ‘Who is involved?’.

For the contemporary data collection, we employed both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Altogether, we conducted 110 face-to-face interviews and 25 email interviews, and received 500 completed paper questionnaires and 58 online questionnaire responses. We also employed participant observation, and ‘hanging out’ which included sitting in different parts of a cathedral at different times of day and simply people-watching. This allowed different forms of data to be linked together. For example, an activity that shows up in statistics like candle lighting could be followed up by talking to the volunteer who cleans the candle stand, the visitor who lights the candle, but also by simply observing a candle stand over time, without intervening, just to see how often candles are lit, what might be done in relation to candle lighting, where the most popular spaces to light a candle might be, and so on. I’m going to concentrate here on findings from our three Anglican cathedrals— Canterbury Cathedral (one of England’s preeminent medieval pilgrimage destinations), York Minster (one of the largest medieval Gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe) and Durham Cathedral.

Site of Shrine of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral (Photograph Marion Bowman)

 York Minster (Photograph Marion Bowman)

St Cuthbert’s Shrine, Durham Cathedral (Photograph Marion Bowman)

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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: research/ 2020/ 10/ 21/ worldviews-in-religious-education (Accessed: 14 April 2022). 

Culham St Gabriel’s (2021) ‘Public Perception’ report of commissioned research:  

Harvey, Sarah (2021a) ‘Baseline Report 1: Setting the Context’ 15 July. Inform website. Available at:   

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: 

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:  

NATRE, CoRE, RE: Today (n.d.) ‘A National Plan for RE in England Summary’. Available at: 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: 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.