Religion and the Public Sphere

Religion and the Public Sphere

An interdisciplinary project examining contemporary debates on religion in British public life today. It will explore how religion does and doesn’t matter in British public life, and how it should and shouldn’t.

The point is to know religion a bit better, not simply as believers or disbelievers in specific tenets of faith, and not simply as insiders to one or another specific community of practice and meaning, but as members of the public.

The idea of the public involves common interests and communication among strangers. Strangers means of course people we literally don’t know, but also people with whom we do not share a close communal bond of common relationship. When Muslims meet Christians and Jews, when atheists meet those with faith in God it is in a public realm where we must navigate not having complete cultural or social commonality. Accordingly, we may not know what the others take for granted or as proven, or what the others deem most important. It may turn out that in fact we share many very important interests – in peace and prosperity or family and freedom. It may turn out there are some crucial differences between us, though not the ones we might have thought. But we don’t know this if we don’t communicate and if we don’t learn.

If religion is kept out of public life and interaction, then we don’t learn. If public communication about religion is dominated too one-sidedly by one religion, then we don’t learn what we might about others – even about what they share. If public communication is dominated by those who wish only to argue stridently for the superiority of their religion and neither listen nor carefully explain, then we don’t learn.

But when we bring religion into public discourse, we reveal not just facts about each religion. The public sphere is not simply a religious literacy class. In public discussions we communicate perspectives with which to see and understand all of what is important in public. This may include the views of different religious people on the morality of money, on the justice or injustice of war, the rightness of humanitarian assistance to those who suffer, what obligations we owe to the poor, or (though this isn’t mainly a religious question) whether British should stay in the EU.

The project is led by the school’s Director, Professor Craig Calhoun, along with Professor Matthew Engelke and Revd Dr James Walters and is hosted by the Institute of Public Affairs.

The project will host a series of public lectures and dialogues with leading academics, religious leaders and critics and will be accompanied by a blog. The people invited to speak and to write have very different views and backgrounds. It is hoped this will support a richer conversation, not consensus or conformity.

Events and Podcasts

The End of Religious Freedom and the Return of Religious Influence

LSE Religion and the Public Sphere lecture series
Date: Tuesday 07 February 2017
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House
Speaker: John Milbank
Chair: Professor Matthew Engelke

Click here to watch or listen online


Equality for Secular Belief and Minority Faiths? Reflections on the Commission on Religion in British Public Life

LSE Religion and the Public Sphere lecture series
Date: Tuesday 11 October 2016
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: CLM 2.02, Clement House
Speaker: Professor Tariq Modood
Chair: Professor Craig Calhoun

Click here to watch or listen online


Anti-Semitism in the Modern Age

LSE Religion and the Public Sphere lecture series
Date: Wednesday 7 September 2016
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: CLM 3.02, 3rd Floor, Clement House
Speaker: Professor Yehuda Bauer 
Chair: Professor Kevin Featherstone

Click here to listen online


Equal Rights and Equal Dignity of Human Beings

LSE Religion and the Public Sphere lecture series
Date: Monday 6 June 2016
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speaker: Professor Tariq Ramadan
Chair: Professor Craig Calhoun

Click here to watch or listen online


Religion, Security and Strategy: an unholy trinity?

LSE Religion and the Public Sphere lecture series
Date: Monday 9 May 2016
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building
Speaker: Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson
Chair: Professor Craig Calhoun

Click here to watch or listen online


Democracy, Diversity, Religion

The Québec Annual Lecture hosted by the LSE Institute of Public Affairs
Date: Tuesday 1 December 2015
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Old Theatre, Old Building
Speaker: Professor Charles Taylor
Chair: Professor Craig Calhoun

Click here to watch or listen online


The Book and the Believer: are Catholics, Jews and Muslims still outsiders in British society? 

Institute of Public Affairs public discussion
Date: Thursday 15 October 2015
Time: 6:30-8pm
Venue: Old Theatre, Old Building
Speakers: Sughra Ahmed, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Dr Ruth Gilbert, Dr Edward Kessler
Chair: Professor Conor Gearty

Click here to watch or listen online

Project Team

Craig Calhoun

Professor Craig Calhoun

Former Director and Centennial Professor, LSE

Craig Calhoun was Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) from 2012 - 2016. Before taking up his post at the LSE, he was President of the Social Science Research Council, and taught at the University of North Carolina, Columbia, and NYU where he was most recently University Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge.

Calhoun’s many publications bring together theory and empirical research across several disciplines. Among his books on politics and social movements are Neither Gods Nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China and The Roots of Radicalism.

He has also published extensively on nationalism and globalization; economic and technological change; critical social theory; the history of social science; and secularism, religion, and the public sphere including Rethinking secularism [2011], Habermas and religion [2013] and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere [2011].

Matthew Engelke

Professor Matthew Engelke

Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology

Matthew Engelke is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He has over 20 years of research experience on religion and culture, and has conducted major projects in Zimbabwe and in Britain.

One of his interests in Britain has been the efforts of evangelically minded Christians to create more room for religion in public and in public life. His book on this work, God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England, was published by the University of California Press in 2013.

Most recently, Professor Engelke has turned his attention to the study of humanism, in particular the British Humanist Association—itself a very active voice in the public sphere. 

Jim Walters

The Revd Dr James Walters

Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser, Faith Centre

The Revd Dr James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a Senior Lecturer in Practice at the LSE Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and a Senior Fellow of the LSE Institute of Public Affairs.

Since his appointment in 2010 Dr Walters has established the LSE Faith Centre which works to foster interreligious understanding across a student body drawn from 150 different countries. The Centre is home to the LSE Faith & Leadership programme, which combines interfaith religious literacy with leadership development and encourages students to connect their own beliefs with the issues of today’s world.

Dr Walters is a regular contributor on the interface of theology, philosophy, and politics. In 2012 he published his theological engagement with the work of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.  As well as developing this philosophical work he is currently researching the theology of money and recently delivered a series of public lectures on this theme as International Theologian at Murdoch University in Perth Australia. He has also served as an officer of the British Society for the Study of Theology. 

Dr Walters has interests in the role of religion in education and contributes to the theological direction of Church of England schools at the national level. More locally he chairs the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education in the London Borough of Camden.

Esther Kersley

Esther Kersley

Research Officer, Institute of Public Affairs

Esther Kersley is the Research Officer for Religion and the Public Sphere. Prior to working at the LSE, Esther worked as a Research Officer at peace and security think tank Oxford Research Group. She has also worked for the NGO Transparency International and counter terrorism think tank Quilliam. Esther has an MSc in Conflict Studies from the LSE and a BA in Politics from SOAS.