Re-imagining Religion and Belief for Public Policy & Practice

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: STaCS


The network will critically map ideas and understandings of religion and belief from across relevant disciplines, mainly in the Humanities but with some cross-over in to social sciences where significant work has been undertaken which is likely to stimulate further the humanities-focus of the network, and enable it to bridge in to the policy world. The participating disciplines are: Religious Studies, Political Philosophy, Public, Practical and Political Theology, Cultural Studies, Anthropology and Sociology of Religion, Social and Public Policy, and Critical Urban Geography.

A preparatory phase will see the PI and co-I undertaking informal interviews with 14-20 leading academics to resource a deep framing of the debates and contestations. This will underpin the heart of the network which will be a core of 7 academic experts (in addition to the PI/CI), 5 international academic experts, and 6 doctoral/post-doctoral participants who will take part in a major interdisciplinary colloquium to identify and debate key thinking, contests and debates. The focus is on interdisciplinarity, including internationally, and the network will search for points of connection and disconnection across and between these disciplines in the UK, Europe and North America. It will include participants from key international centres where significant recent work on religion and society is relevant, namely the Centre for Religion and Society at Uppsala University, Sweden, the Religion and Diversity Project at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and the Religious Literacy Foundation at Harvard, USA. This will lead to the publication of a critical overview of the key parameters of intellectual enquiry on the subject of contemporary religion and belief.

Findings and themes from the colloquium will be translated through structured workshops for a policy audience seeking to engage with religion and belief in the prominent fields of: security and cohesion; community and neighbourhood; education; welfare and the Third Sector; international development; and health and social care. There is clear evidence of a policy focus on religion and belief in each of these areas, which the network will also scrutinise and disseminate as critical academic outputs.

The PI and Co-I will also run knowledge exchange workshops in Helsinki, Ottawa and Boston, working with network participants to frame one day events to share and debate the re-imagined religion and belief and policy which has emerged.

Planned Impact

The network will have important impacts for policy-making across a range of fields with an interest in religion and belief, in addition to the academic beneficiaries set out. Key policy areas which the network will connect closely with include: security and cohesion; community and neighbourhood; education; welfare and the Third Sector (especially within conditions of intensifying austerity); security and cohesion; international development; and health and social care. The key impact will be better policy-making based more closely on cutting-edge theory and evidence. This will be achieved through the carefully integrated structure of deepening exchange and iteration between different forms of knowledge which proposed for this network. This will calibrate policy-making with the real religious landscape, and enable a better relationship between policy contexts and real-world practices. This is important in three primary policy fields (Dinham 2009):

1) Service provision and welfare: what policy-makers call 'faith groups' are increasingly called upon to plug gaps in welfare and service provision as states roll back across the West. Following Putnam (2010) and as observed by Dinham (2009), faith groups are widely regarded as repositories of resources which can be turned to the common good - buildings, staff, volunteers, networks, and money. Understanding the real religious landscape as revealed by contemporary research and theory is essential if policy-makers are to look in the right places and in the right ways to realise their goals of connecting with these 'repositories'.
2) Community and neighbourhood: policy-makers also regard faith groups as 'good at community' (Dinham 2009; 2010; 2012), able to bring about bonding, bridging and linking social capital (Furbey, Dinham et al 2006), and being present in many, perhaps every, part of the country, even where other agencies may have withdrawn. They often work under the radar and at the margins in very local, grass roots projects and initiatives, and can be effective in reaching the harder to reach. A strong understanding of the role and contribution of religion and belief in this area will also enable policy-makers to provide a benign and/or actively supportive policy environment.
3) Security and cohesion: At the same time, policy makers have also been anxious about the potential of religion and belief to undermine community through extremism and violence. Policies have been criticised for homogenising and 'othering' Islam and for generating competition and divides at grass roots levels. Engagement with research and theory in this area will underpin a better quality of conversation and outcomes.

It is also clear that religion and belief are relevant issues in contexts of migration, globalisation and urbanisation, making for a mobile global population which is hugely religiously plural and who express religious identity and belief in countless ordinary and everyday spaces and contexts. A critical, interdisciplinary mapping of contemporary understandings and evidence about these macro dynamics and themes (including emerging clusters of ideas) has the potential to underpin significantly better informed policy-making in all of these fields. The planned workshops with policy-makers will specifically address these policy areas within the project timescale. The international knowledge exchange events will also be instrumental. The PI has significant track-record through his leadership of the Religious Literacy Programme, which works with leaders, employer groups and service providers to help them engage better with religion and belief and this will form a platform, with established credibility, for effective engagement.


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Description Religion and belief are being talked about in more disciplines, and in changing ways, in recent years.
Disciplines have not been good at talking to each other about their thinking on religion and belief.
The connection between Theology, Religious Studies, and other Arts and Humanities discussions about religion and belief are largely unmade.
Exploitation Route We are continuing with a process of:
1. International dissemination of our analysis of the ways in which arts and humanities disciplines are thinking about religion and belief. We will be visiting Montreal in May 2016, Oslo in June 2016, and Melbourne in November 2016.
2. Policy engagement with leaders in local authorities, the Third Sector and national government, convening at the House of Lords in April 2016
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description We held a policy engagement workshop at the House of Lords in summer 2016, bringing together ten government, local authority, council of voluntary service, and faith leaders. The resulting report shows a number of key observations from participants that confirm our conclusion that follow-up work is needed, as follows: 1. The group reported a dearth of resources and 'thinking spaces' in this area. 2. They stressed the importance of stimulating a diversity of participation in decision-making, especially in state institutions (local and national), involving people of all faiths and none, and from a range of sectors and settings, in policy-making. 3. There was concern that the informalisation of religion and belief which research reveals, and a shift to an emphasis on 'lived' religion, make it harder for institutions to engage - who should they engage with and how can they be found? Policy-makers want help with this. 4. They observed a flowering of interest in religion and belief, but think it is tinged by a 'pathologisation' leading to anxiety rooted in binaries which feel outdated - between society as either sacred or secular, and between religion as either private or public. The group wanted help with reimagining these positions. 5. There is a perceived tension between accepting new forms of philanthropic faith-based social action, and working with those that advocate redistribution of power and capacity, and /or make structural critiques. These policy-makers wanted help understanding the values-bases and beliefs underpinning these positions, and how to engage with them in ways which might lead to effective partnership. 6. Leaders want some guidance on the best policies that can helpfully frame religion and belief practices and identities in the workplace. 7. They are interested in action more than principles or points of agreement, and assume the rest will follow (or not). 8. There is an appetite for a 'database' of case studies showing where faith groups add value. 9. There is demand for the provision of a regular and safe space to share new ideas and challenges in this arena of civic engagement. Recognising these specific and previously unforeseen appetites and needs, we proposed to work over a further period with a wider group of policy-makers and leading practitioners in welfare, cohesion and security settings, with the concrete aim of devising religion and belief policies, and resources to support them, which align as closely as possible with the latest research and theory. These activities and interventions will underpin and begin the establishment of a new Religion, Belief and Policy Network which we will convene with a conference and report (carried on other social media platforms and digital offshoots) to feed new ideas, research and case studies into the CVS and local policy system as well as to wider policy, academic and stakeholder audiences. We will seek to make this network self-sustaining by identifying a policy-maker as ongoing convenor beyond the life of the project.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description International roadshow to share findings and explore transferability 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We held one day workshops in Oslo, Ottawa and Melbourne where we shared our analysis and facilitated exercises and discussions to consider their transferability across borders
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Policy engagement workshop at the House of Lords 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We held a one day workshop at the House of Lords, UK, with policy makers (eg CEOs of Local Authorities) and leaders (eg of Third Sector organisations). We shared our analysis and set them the task of identifying concrete policy areas which it could help address differently.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016