In her first blog as Head of Research, Madeleine Pennington comments on the state of our world and why Theos’ research has never been more important. 21/01/2020
Having seen the excellence of Theos’ research team first–hand for the past year, I’m delighted to be stepping into the role of Head of Research.
Headlines from Iran to Australia make clear that society (indeed, the human race) is facing unprecedented challenges. Geopolitically, we might point to an increasingly precarious Middle East, the emerging markets of India and China, and the impending disruption of Brexit at home. Environmentally, the global climate emergency is accelerating before our eyes. So too, in the world of science and technology, the quest for ‘true’ AI rumbles on – and just last week we heard that biological robots (that is, living and programmable machines) are now a reality. From presidential impeachment to parliamentary prorogation, Extinction Rebellion to Cambridge Analytica, the world is shifting. As Nick Spencer observed just six months ago, “Not for a long time has history felt so alive”.
My own background is in intellectual history – more specifically, in the intersection between faith and politics as a driver of cultural change in the early Enlightenment – and while direct comparisons are a fool’s errand, the world was changing then too. Reflecting on parallels with our own historical moment, it is clear to me that the implications of such changes reach far beyond what is merely geopolitical, environmental or technological. Instead, they fundamentally recalibrate how we conceive of history, community, citizenship, responsibility, humanity and freedom in a modern age. So they must; we are nothing in isolation.
What, then, of religion? In the face of so much change, it is a common objection that faith is stuck in the past. After all, religious ‘nones’ are on the rise and now consistently make up over half of the UK population. But this is not the whole story. In the first instance, and particularly in an age of austerity, we have also seen a marked increase in faith–based social action. Church volunteer hours rose by almost 60% between 2010 and 2014, to 114.8 million hours per year, and a quarter of all charities in the UK are now faith–based – making them the fastest–growing aspect of the charity sector as a whole. Yet perhaps more important is what the Church has to say about precisely those existential questions raised above. Religious modes of meaning–making aren’t going away, and it is striking that around a third of people who belong to no religion still believe in life after death. This is much more than a collective hangover from a bygone age. On the contrary, as Paul Bickley noted in his 2018 study of resilience in the North East, ‘Churches can help rebuild spiritual capital by acts of celebration and telling a more hopeful story about the future – not one of blithe optimism, but one of the possibility of change over time’. Christianity continues to play a dynamic role in modern communities. As a critical reflection on this contribution, and precisely because the world is changing so quickly, I believe that our research has never been more important.
In the last year alone, we’ve published research on the state of free speech in universities, the response of a nearby mosque to the Grenfell disaster, and evolving perceptions of the relationship between science and religion in public discourse. Looking ahead, the next year will see us present findings on the Church’s response to widening social and political inequalities, the changing religious demographics of London, the relationship between social action and church growth in the Church of England, and the impact of faith on social cohesion. These projects all explore the role of faith through one of our three core research streams – living together, doing good, and being human – and they are chosen for what they can tell us about the place of religion in general (and Christianity in particular) in the changing world around us.
It is a privilege to be leading this vibrant research programme into a new decade, and we have certainly hit the ground running: in the past week alone, Theos researchers have transcribed the final participant interview for the GRA:CE project and the 200th interview for the social cohesion project, as well as completing the Religious London research. These are the quiet milestones which make up a Theos report, and they are helpful reminders that at the heart of our mission is a diligent and brilliant team of researchers.
And so, onwards into 2020. A daunting time to be alive, perhaps, but an exciting one too – and as we start to make sense of the changes ahead together, I have no doubt that this wonderful team will continue to play an invaluable role in that conversation. I look forward to meeting many of you in person, and to sharing our vital work with all of you in the coming months and years.