From education to employment

Faith and belief groups are best viewed as an asset to society and not as a problem to be solved

Faith groups’ role in social cohesion undervalued, says new report commissioned by the @BritishAcademy_ and the @FaithBelieForum 

Faith and non-religious belief groups’ positive contribution to social cohesion deserves greater recognition and should have more influence on cohesion policy in the United Kingdom, finds a new report commissioned by the British Academy and the Faith and Belief Forum.  

‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’, by the thinktank Theos, charts social cohesion policy in the UK and examines the practical impact of the faith and belief sector on our communities. 

The report draws on practical case studies from across the UK, including an interfaith programme initiated by the West London Synagogue to promote positive Jewish-Muslim relations locally, a mosque that is currently facilitating English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learning, a Catholic homelessness charity, and a Christian initiative set up to tackle knife crime in the capital.  

The authors argue: 

  • Social cohesion policy in the United Kingdom has developed in the context of four main factors: demographic shifts accompanying migration, the growth of the ‘non-religious’ affiliation, significant changes to the welfare state, and crises such as the ‘race riots’ in summer 2001 
  • Consequently, cohesion policy has been disproportionately dominated by concerns for national identity, security and loyalty, rather than by a desire to pursue social cohesion as an end in itself 
  • Faith is too often thought of as a concerning ‘other’ and a risk to social cohesion; it has also often been subtly racialised as the preserve of ethnic minorities in a broadly secular mainstream 
  • While faith and belief can be a source of division, many faith groups play a key role in social cohesion and their contributions need to be considered in the formation of cohesion policy.  

The report is part of the British Academy’s ongoing Cohesive Societies programme, launched in 2017, which explores how societies remain cohesive in the face of rapid political, social, economic and technological change. 

Professor Tariq Modood FBA said: 

“It is time to reassess the place of faith and belief in cohesion policy in the United Kingdom. As this timely report from Theos shows, social cohesion policy has often ignored the practical, positive and significant role that faith groups play in our communities. Moreover, where cohesion policy has addressed faith and belief groups, it has all too frequently been in the context of security concerns and the need to repair community relations where they are already broken.  

“We need a more rounded consideration of the complex and distinctive nature of faith and belief. We hope that this review will offer a helpful starting point in this regard, enabling further discussion in the ongoing Cohesive Societies project and beyond.” 

Phil Champain, Director of the Faith and Belief Forum, said: 

“Faith and belief groups are best viewed as an asset to society and not as a problem to be solved. This report clearly shows that integration issues are better addressed by approaching faith and belief communities in a spirit of partnership, recognising the positive role they can play in creating a more connected and cohesive society. Many faith groups already play a central role in bettering social cohesion while also providing crucial services in their local areas. By working to build better relations between our diverse communities, we can unlock even more of this potential for positive change.” 

Theology and Religious Studies risk disappearing from our universities, says the British Academy 

A comprehensive analysis of Theology and Religious Studies provision in the UK last year, Theology and Religious Studies provision in UK Higher Education (2019) revealed that there were about 6,500 fewer students on such degree courses in 2017-18 than seven years ago, when fees were increased.

Theology and Religious Studies disciplines must confront significant challenges or risk ‘disappearing from our universities’ at a time when they have never been more needed, said the British Academy, in response to the steep decline in student numbers.

The decline has led to the closure or reduction in size of several university theology departments. For instance, the UK’s specialist theological institution, Heythrop College, founded in 1614, closed its doors in 2018 after over 400 years of teaching.

The report also highlights significant gender imbalances between Theology and Religious Studies students and staff. While women made up 64% of students on first degree programmes in 2017/18, they made up only 35% of doctoral students and 37% of academic staff. In other similar humanities subjects 53% of academics are women. Meanwhile, the average age of academic staff is 47 years old compared with around 43 in Philosophy, Classics or History – and the average age has been rising.

If unaddressed, the profile of TRS teaching staff could prove to be a stumbling block to recruiting students from the next generation, who increasingly value diversity, leading to further ‘pipeline’ problems in the disciplines.

Warning of the ‘pipeline’ problems, Professor Roger Kain FBA, Vice-President of Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy, said:

This report comes at a critical time for Theology and Religious Studies. Not only are the subjects’ popularity on the wane but the problem is confounded by the profile of their teaching staff; if more ethnically and gender diverse groups do not rise through the ranks, there is a danger that these highly relevant disciplines disappear from our universities.”

Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, said:

“Despite the rise of secularism in the West, religion continues to play a dominant role on the world stage. Religious extremism, religion-infused nationalism, and tension between religious communities are just some of the many challenges we face today. Religion is more, not less, relevant than ever before, and the study of it should reflect this.

“As an academic community, we must strive to ensure that our Theology and Religious Studies reflect the world they seek to explain.”

Related Articles