In a recent major report from the British Academy, a group of leading academics and policy-makers observed that the British social sciences and humanities were making a huge practical contribution to the improvement of public policy, but at the same time were punching below their weight: inter-disciplinary silos meant a risk of reduced creativity, the report claimed. The development of intense specialisation within disciplines was undermining the ability of researchers to make bridges to the policy sphere. This challenge was being compounded by the relative absence of cross-faculty research centres staffed by those with networks in the academy and government and with the institutional support to put those links to good use.
It could be argued that no interface better demonstrates these tensions than that of religion with other disciplines in general and the social sciences in particular. These two edited collections are important in their own right, then, but also in the manner by which they suggest new paths of enquiry and analysis.
For Levey and Modood, the key challenge is to tease out a thorough understanding of what might constitute ‘secularism’ and to reflect on the variety of social locations in which previous attempts at this task have been made. In pursuit of this task they have gathered many of the world’s leading students of religion, state and the civil sphere. Rich in history, acknowledging the impact of global migration flows on debates regarding the core precepts of liberalism, citizenship and ethnicity, the book also benefits from case studies recent and not so recent.
Spalek and Imtoual’s collection points to a deeper conundrum, namely the extent to which the social sciences themselves have been conditioned by their deep roots in the ‘modern’ project. The implicit challenge is that much of the theologising done regarding the social sciences will have to play catch up: many rejections of the social sciences by theologians have been grounded in a critique of frameworks that these social scientists now acknowledge were often misjudged.
At the heart of Spalek and Imtoual’s collection then is an aspiration to recover a missing empirical and theoretical tradition. Because the social sciences were established from within a series of foundational secular projects, underpinned by the seemingly ‘modern’ and modernising ideas of ‘secularisation’, they by-passed a whole realm of human experience, social factors and even spiritualities. Their foundational assumptions were so deep-seated that this exclusion of ‘marginal’ religion and spirituality was almost impossible to bring to the surface. An emerging trend, though, seeks to correct this imbalance. Particularly helpful in this regard, for Britons, are the essays by Professors Tariq Modood (both a contributor here and an editor of the Cambridge volume) and Gordon Lynch (of London University).
Modood, a leading scholar of multiculturalism, teases out the institutional arrangements made by European states to manage and relate to religion. Unlike some easily delineated theologies of the European condition, Modood notes that the more secular a country becomes the more it seeks to order the faith-based interactions among its people. Ironically, for Modood, it is the French, with their strong commitment to laicite, who have done the most to establish formal structures of dialogue with (and exclusion of) certain religious bodies. In the UK, by contrast, he argues that we have a ‘milder’ secularism and that we are all the more socially cohesive for it. For readers in Ireland where ‘structured’ dialogue between faiths and the state is at an early and groundbreaking stage, this may come as little comfort. Modood is particularly instructive – in terms of how policy in this area develops – when read alongside David Saunders’ essay on the centenary of the 1905 French law to separate church and state, which is in Levey and Modood’s wider collection.
Gordon Lynch helps us to understand UK society more thoroughly and in one way builds on Modood’s argument. In a characteristically thoughtful contribution, he describes the move towards cultural individualism in Britain and implicitly contradicts those Church leaders who claim that an increase in spirituality among citizens is necessarily a sign of hope for mainstream Churches. For Lynch, modern spiritualities and consumer cultures are more of a commodification of human relations and principles. This means that they replicate intense individualisms rather than represent some as yet unformed turn to religiosity in its more ecclesial guises. Leslie Francis addresses aspects of this conversation by looking at religious affiliation as an indicator in social research.
International in scope, the Policy Press collection also includes contributors from outside Europe. Useful contributions come, for example, from Maria Frahm-Arp (on studying religion in Sub-Saharan Africa) and in the editors’ introduction and conclusions. Combined with the supreme quality and international reach of Levey and Modood the two volumes together are an academic ‘must’.
Nevertheless,while Religion, Spirituality and the Social Sciences and Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship are both intended for a higher education market, they would make useful resources for a thoughtful Lenten group, Newman Association, or the study day of a Religious Order. Combined, they form one of the most helpful introductions to how conversations about ‘faith’ are changing. Taken together they suggest that the humanities and social sciences may, in times to come, find fresh ways to contribute to the public sphere while religious leaders with a penchant for bland generalising will have to smarten up their empirical act: faith need not be excluded from the hollowed-out civil sphere, but neither should it collapse into the consoling arms of the establishment without hard-headed – and renewed – reflection.
The reviewer, Francis Davis, is a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford and lectures in social enterprise and community development at the University of Cambridge.