Aims of the Project

Rationale and Research Context

Religion and belief are rapidly emerging across Arts and Humanities disciplines outside of Theology and Religious Studies, through such themes as diversity, equality and plurality, public-private boundaries and interfaces, religious freedom, democracy and participation, and gender and identity. Within Theology and Religious Studies, the focus is changing too, with growing emphases on the contemporary and lived, alongside the traditional and historical. These shifts have coalesced around the idea of the postsecular - an intensely contested term that reflects the return (or perhaps more accurately, the new visibility) of religion and belief in the 21st century West. A key voice in this debate observes ‘a postsecular self-understanding of society as a whole in which the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularizing environment must be reckoned with’ (Habermas 2006). His assertion relies on several elements: the continued expansion of religion globally and its power to shape culture and politics as well as individual behaviour; the inherent discrimination of a one-size-fits-all secular vision of the public square that requires religious citizens to modify their religious identity in ways that secular citizens do not have to; and the inability of liberal democracies to challenge the materialism and non-accountability of global capitalism that erodes democracy and social collectivism, from within its own resources (2005, 2006). Liberal democracies, says Habermas, need to rediscover the wisdom, discernment and discipline that are linked with ‘pre-political’ religious sources because they are independent and self-generating, beyond the influence of both State and Market (2010). The post-secular will be the first key lens of the network.

A second debate which frames the network revolves around the idea of the post-political. This is closely related to neo-Marxist political philosophy and theory (Zizek 1999; Ranciere  2009; Mouffe 2007). It alleges that the uncontested rise of neo-liberal capitalism (following the ‘defeat’ of Fordism and Communism in the late 20th century) has hollowed out genuine dissent, and therefore democracy, in favour or techniques of technocratic managerialism (Zizek, 2002) and the search for consensus (Swyngedouw, 2007).  These techniques cement the hegemony of neo-liberal capital by ensuring that everything works within the assumptions of its socio-economic framework. These assumptions include attracting inward investment, multiplying opportunities for profitable investment and individual rather than collective utility (Harvey 1989; Mouffe, 2007). Post-politics is often equated with de-politicisation which paradoxically transmits itself through the current discourses and practices associated with the shift from government to governance (Stoker, 2004, Paddison 2009).

Governance posits the idea of complexity and the need for multiple social engagement, or neo-populism, (Paddison 2009), but actually forecloses debate in the illusory search for a consensus which ultimately does little to change existing power structures. Those who have no existing voice within the political framework continue to be excluded (Ranciere, 2009). This network will explore the post-secular and the post-political as critical contexts in which contemporary religion and belief play out. The confluence will enable the network to address contemporary questions in the context of a perceived motivational deficit in the public sphere and the search for alternative values by which to critique the model of neo-liberal political economy. Critics have argued that the ubiquitous nature of the term ‘postsecular’ risks its devaluation (Beckford, 2012). However, the fluid and uncertain nature of the new public space reflected in the term ‘postsecular’ is precisely a core definitional challenge this network intends to address.

Finally, the localismagenda presents a third key context. It involves both official and more grassroots debates, and enjoins ideas of community, and therefore specifically the faith community.  Building on New Labour policy narratives of community, localism and double devolution, the 2012 Localism Act introduced by the UK Coalition intends far-reaching restructuring of the State-citizen relationship by devolving central government powers to local authorities, the market and communities. Despite deep cuts to local authority budgets there is some evidence of creative and resilient responses by local government and communities which is expressed in ideas such as collaborative civic leadership, institutional bricolage, local ‘sense-making’, and institutional sharing with civil society actors (Lowndes 2013). In respect of central government’s integration framework local authorities in areas of high diversity are also attempting to facilitate dialogue over ideas about what constitutes the common good. These dialogues are increasingly facilitated across faith-faith and faith-secular boundaries (Chapman 2012). Meanwhile, many citizens are actively seeking alternative communities of identity and meaning making in the form of intentional communities, new coalitions of political activism, blogging, other use of social media and on-line and off-line affinity groups (Castells 2012). This shift towards more informal and more directly participative forms of political and civic engagement has also intensified the emergence of spaces of postsecular rapprochement (Cloke and Beaumont 2012) and progressive localism across faith-faith and faith secular divides (Williams, 2013, Featherstone et al, 2012, Baker, 2103). In these ways, a trend towards new and informal forms is found in both the political and the religious at the same time, making a re-imagining all the more pressing and pertinent. The emergence of a plural and postsecular public sphere, characterised by more blurred and fluid encounters that radically question traditional 20th century assumptions of an unbridgeable religious/secular divide, is one of the hallmarks of the current policy-making context. Some of the questions therefore lying at the heart of this proposed network include: Does the new emergence of religion and belief as a key player in these debates help us to restructure the political landscape beyond the inertia of the post-political, or is it simply a new form of collusion?; Is the real religion and belief landscape understood and engaged by policy-makers, and in its growing informality, how can it be engaged?; Is what Baker calls the spiritual capital of ordinary citizens (Baker, 2006, 2012, 2013) a way of harnessing more radical mobilisation in a post-political, austerity welfare landscape?; What is the role of local authorities and other anchor institutions in developing this latent potential?; and what are the implications for public policy of a re-imagined religion and belief landscape? 

Public Policy Highlight

This network addresses two prominent areas of public policy in particular. The first concerns the growth in diversity and plurality of religion and belief, and finds expression in often competing policies for cohesion, multiculturalism, integration and security. The current government policy guidelines for social cohesion and integration, Creating the Conditions for Integration (CLG 2012), envisage an holistic approach to community development and participation as a means of combating the perceived threat of terrorism through radicalisation and exclusion. The previous Prevent strategy was criticised for targeting an entire ethnic and cultural group (Islam) whilst also preferentially funding that group. The current strategy contains five strands, two of which are particularly pertinent: the importance of Common Ground and Participation. However, these guidelines are widely perceived as more aspirational than realisable. This network will explore these tensions, and focus on the ways in which they are rooted in an outdated reading of religion and belief as tradition, rather than identity, which emerging research reveals as flawed. The second area addresses an emphasis on community and on plugging gaps in welfare provision through community-based services, such as are provided in significant volume by religion and belief sources. Local authorities, which have had a 27% reduction in their budgets between 2011 – 2014, face the challenge to prioritise services under conditions of growing demand, and of generating deeper commitment to civic participation and political engagement to augment their capacity to do so. Religion and belief groups are regarded by policy makers as important contributors in this (Dinham and Lowndes 2008 Chapman, 2012). 


Aims and Objectives

The main objective of this interdisciplinary research network is to critically map a wide range of contemporary conceptions of religion and belief and to translate and disseminate this mapping for policy audiences.The goal is to calibrate cutting edge evidence and theory about the contemporary religious landscape with policy-makers' ideas of it in prominent policy fields, especially: security and cohesion; community and neighbourhood; education; welfare and the Third Sector; international development; and health and social care. The network will put into dialogue different approaches to religion and belief from participating disciplines, namely Religious Studies, Political Philosophy, Public, Practical and Political Theology, Cultural Studies, Anthropology and Sociology of Religion, Social and Public Policy, and Critical Urban Geography. In addition to this interdisciplinarity, the network will strategically engage two other key dynamics into the debate. First, it will critically frame and augment the UK context and public policy experience with reference to international expertise and theoretical development. The international potential of this funding stream has been fully expressed by the participation of other internationally recognised centres of excellence in this field where empirical research is at an advanced level; namely Scandinavia and North America. These comparative contexts have the advantage of relative proximity to the UK experience but are also sufficiently different in terms of post-secular conditions and governmental structures to provide real added value in terms of analysis. Meanwhile, the knowledge exchange processes envisaged within this network will allow UK scholarship and expertise in this field to influence debates within these contexts, not least in post-network opportunities for dissemination of the network’s findings by the PI and CI within the participating contexts of Scandinavia and North America. Second, alongside the cohorts of UK experts and international commentators, a third cohort will add extra value in terms of innovative and cutting edge thinking. This cohort will comprise a number of recent post-doctoral researchers from the UK whose work is creating new knowledge in the field. Their direct engagement with top UK and international practitioners will create added value in terms of developing research and theoretical capacity, thus helping to sustain future resilience in public policy research in a time of deep cutbacks and uncertainty. We believe that this network will be a modest but potentially significant contribution to ensuring both religious literacy but also creative problem solving in this critically important, yet still mis-understood area of public and political life. The insights derived from this process will be tested against the perceptions and experiences of those working directly in the policy field. In particular: civil servants, advisors and government ministers whose areas of engagement directly intersect this agenda – namely the Home Office and Departments for Communities and Local Government and Education; chief executives and chief operating officers from local authorities in areas of high diversity; researchers and senior level staff from key voluntary and community charities and NGOs working in this field. This will enable the network to move towards a degree of multi- and or inter-disciplinarity in understanding and exploring religion and belief, and will highlight gaps, complements and contradictions across the field in both UK, European and North American public policy contexts.