Rebecca Catto, Research on Religion and Public Policy

13 05 2013

[This is the second in the series of posts relating to the first Philosophy and Religious Practices’ workshop at the University of Liverpool (a report for which is available here). This is a summary of a talk given by Rebecca Catto, a research fellow at the Centre for Social Relations at the University of Coventry and one of the leading academic voices in UK public debate around religion today.]


I am a sociologist of religion whose work has brought them into contact with the world of public policy rather than a policy expert, so this is the experience I drew upon for this paper, specifically:

  • Work at LSE-based charity studying New Religious Movements Inform
  • Work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on religion or belief.

This era of public policy and media interest in religion would seem an appropriate moment for experts on religion to be engaging beyond the academy, and there is the drive of the impact agenda in the UK.

The key points from what I am learning through such work are as follows:

  • Researchers have something significant and distinctive to contribute.
  • Reflexivity about one’s own values and position is important.
  • Engagement involves listening as well as informing, patience and commitment.
  • Cross-disciplinary work can be particularly powerful.
  • Creating and supporting dialogue may be a contribution in itself.

There is great inter and intra-religious diversity within and beyond the UK. This empirical diversity is a challenge for policy makers and legislators, as European and domestic case law in relation to religion or belief has been showing. Arts and humanities and social science researchers can contribute to a better understanding of the complexity.

We are not here to direct policy, but to provide balanced and useful accounts “for seeing the way things are and the way things might be…” (Barker, 1995: 302). It may be almost impossible to pinpoint one’s contribution to policy, but, if you believe you have an important message/idea of how to solve a problem, you ought to persevere. Public policy making is challenging and policy makers say they need help. We just have to try to communicate in an accessible, constructive manner.



Barker E. (1995) The Scientific Study of Religion? You must be joking! Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34: 287-310.



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