The last AHRC/ESRC Religion & Society Programme Westminster Faith Debate took place last night, with two of our Advisory Board members speaking – Professors Grace Davie and Linda Woodhead. In their differing, but complementary, presentations they set out the nature of religious change since World War II, leading up to the present picture (and with some very tentative comments about the future).
Professor Davie set out problems with the assumption of secularisation in modern times, pointing out that secularisation does not just refer to an absence of religion, but is also a specific form of values in itself. Since the 1990s there has been talk of ‘de-secularisation’ and ‘post-secularity’ as religion has been seen to make a ‘return’ to the public sphere. In giving a number of specific dates which she felt were significant in this process, Davie stated that 2001 was the year that finally cemented the return of religion in the public consciousness. But alongside the decline in religious belonging and indeed of religious influence in the public sphere, religious literacy has also declined. Years of neglect in RE have led to a situation where (Davie referred to an earlier speaker in the series, Professor Jim Conroy) pupils may know what to feed a Jewish friend, but have no idea about the values that inform those choices, or how to discuss them in a positive manner. Davie closed by pointing out that this lack of ability to talk about religion, at a time when it is frequently making the news, has led to ill-informed and ill-mannered debate, something which only more religious literacy can resolve.
Linda Woodhead introduced the term ‘de-reformation’ to the discussion, arguing that what we had seen in recent years reversed a lot of the changes the Reformation had made to organised religion in Europe (both speakers were careful to contextualise the issue of secularisation as primarily a European phenomenon, something that wasn’t picked up on later.) Belief in a personal god has halved since the 1960s, but beliefs in spiritual powers and angels have all increased substantially over the same period. Woodhead strongly argued that it wasn’t the case that traditional forms of religion had declined and left these new beliefs in their wake, but rather that it has been the other way round: lived religion, sought out in personal efforts, is alive and well and because of the growth of these ‘mash-up’ beliefs, traditional religion has declined.
The changes that Davie and Woodhead outlined were reinforced by the respondents. Aaqil Ahmed, who is Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC, spoke about the change in religious programming that has, to some extent, mirrored the shifts in religious believing and belonging that were highlighted earlier. But he also spoken about the incredible lack of religious literacy, and how whilst there is often an appetite for the new kind of engaged and interesting programmes that are now being produced about religion, there is still a lack of basic understanding (he gave an example of speaking to a room of bright Oxbridge graduates and having to point out that Jesus was Jewish).
There were a lot of other important points and issues raised during this debate, including in some of the questions. I have chosen, rather unsurprisingly, to focus on religious literacy, but you can read the papers and, soon, see the podcasts here. What all the speakers highlighted last night was, that despite the undoubted decline in religious belonging, the changing face of religious institutions, and the rise in personal ‘mash-up’ religion, there is still a need to teach and develop skills that enable people to discuss and debate these issues in an articulate fashion.