If the greatest achievement of a major study of religion is to bring the curtain down on purely religious research, it really will have done a valuable service.
This month the door closes on a path-breaking research initiative investigating contemporary religion. With £12m and the clout of two research councils behind it, the Religion & Society research programmemarks a sea change in how we think about religion: in short, for the first time in a long time lots of us think that religion matters. And not as a vestige of societies gone by or as a marker of societies less modern and far away, but as a vital and significant aspect of our own society, affecting all of us, religious or otherwise.
The programme has been very successful at what it set out to achieve, and it has generated some high quality and socially significant research (as a large swell of funding and good management is wont to). But looking to the future – as Charles Clarke, chairing the last of the programme’s Westminster Faith Debates series last week, asked the audience to do – I think one of its greatest achievements will be if researching religion and only religion never occurs again.
The reason is simple: the study of religion is exclusive. This should be obvious, but is rarely highlighted. Everyday, we talk about religion as though it were a demographic category equivalent to other commonplace categories: gender, race, age, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality. The problem is that it isn’t. Age, gender, nationality – these are all universal categories, inclusive of everyone. Despite being talked about in the same breath – and increasingly turning up on the same equalities monitoring forms – religion is different. Everyone has an age, a gender, a national status; not everyone has a religion.