Why On Religion? 31 July 2012

The Kabah, in Makkah

Religion is a uniquely human phenomenon. Elsewhere in the natural world, we observe behaviour in animals that mimics our own. Families, communities, even monogamy. Aspects of the human experience once thought to be trademark to us alone, such as emotion, forethought, language and the construction and use of technology, have all been observed in animals – albeit in a more primitive degree.

It is in this context that man’s spiritual and religious tendencies seem much more pronounced. Sir Alister Hardy, a marine biologist by training but a polymath by avocation, popularised the term homo religiosus. It seems a fitting description however, one that enunciates the importance of faith and spirituality to the human experience – whether in the European marshland or Indian megacities.

Those who study religion, whether as pious believers or sceptics, recognise its importance in understanding society and the human world. It is from this recognition that On Religion has been born.

As a religion and theology student during my undergraduate degree I would often browse the newsstands, eager to find a magazine or publication that suited my tastes; one that provided me with the same stimulus a science student would find with the New Scientist, a geographer with the National Geographic or a historian with the BBC History magazine. I was always left wanting however, as no such publication existed. The exception being perhaps holistic spirituality magazines, however few were suited to my tastes.

That is not to say religion was never covered by popular magazines. Rather almost every current affairs, politics and general interest magazine would have an annual ‘God’ edition, or include special features on religion in the UK or abroad.

Yet nearly all of these suffered from the same problems. Often produced by non-specialists with a tight deadline, they tended to generalise a bit too much, overlook a few too many key theorists or treat religion as a superficial field that required no previous study.

It was a frustrating situation. The internet provided relief of course, where you could access more content than ever consumable by a single individual. However the internet made it difficult to discern from noted academic or overambitious layman. Knowing the authorship and reliability of content is always a challenge.

I felt something new was needed. This then set the context for the launch of On Religion. Since no publication was to be found, it was necessary to create one. I joined with a few close colleagues and students of religion who felt the same exasperation at the current coverage of religion in media and set out to create a magazine that could fill a void in the market.

An Orthodox Jew worships at the Wailing Wall

We all agreed however, there was more we could achieve with this magazine than simply to provide commentary. Thus we established our mission statement, a three-fold vision on what we hope to achieve with On Religion. They are as below.

To provide in-depth, informed and impartial commentary on religion.

It was clear to us that one major flaw of mainstream media coverage of religion was depth. Newspapers were guiltier than others of simplifying stories at the expense of accuracy and understanding. Coverage of the Arab Spring was a good example. Rather than recognizing the variety and heterogeneity of Islamic movements involved both during and after the revolution, catch-all terms such as Islamism were used. This only obscured our understanding of what was happening, as we explore later on in this edition.

The need for vox pops and short, bitesize, quotes for televised coverage has also forced superficiality of coverage on issues such as same sex marriage.

Depth cannot flourish unless we allow the space for it to grow. It is for this reason we will provide space for the forgotten tradition of the magazine essay.

Informed coverage is also important to us. Not simply academic qualification, but also the lived and grassroots experiences of religious leaders, activists and those at the forefront of the issues. We aim to use specialists to provide commentary and utilise the knowledge of our writers as far as possible to present to our readers opinions, features and news articles that are informed and up to date.

To be informed also necessitates the recognition of limits. There are the limits of specialism, limits on the reliability of facts and limits on the sum of human knowledge. We hope to present clearly our limits alongside our competencies to provide our readers with the full picture.

Most importantly, we aim to be impartial. By impartial we do not mean to say we are unbiased. We recognise that everyone involved in and writing for On Religion will have their own beliefs, predispositions and opinions. Seeking objectivity is a somewhat fruitless exercise as no one can completely remove themselves from their biography and embodied experiences. Rather, we would argue that our personal and individual uniqueness (call it bias if you wish) provides a richness and diversity of opinion that is to be celebrated. By referring to On Religion as impartial we mean to say that the magazine will endeavor to be fair, just and representative of all faith traditions and the full spectrum of political and theological opinion. We also mean to say that this magazine will not proselytize or be solely written from one faith perspective. It is an open place of debate, commentary and discussion for those of all faiths and none.

To defend the role of religion in the public sphere.

Alistair Campbell famously said ‘We don’t do God’, referring to his party’s stance on public discussion of faith. This was in contrast to the preference of his leader, Tony Blair, a convinced theist and a pious convert to Catholicism. Politicians may avoid talking about God, but religion and theology are certainly important motivating factors – not just in theocratic Iran but in a ‘secular’ British establishment.

Likewise, the morals and ethics we consider to be the norm in the UK or elsewhere are driven by our religious heritage. Faith and religion are woven so deeply into the fabric of our lives, of society and of the political establishment that it is misleading to claim that the State and Church are separate, or that one should not introduce religion into the public sphere.

To defend the role of religion in the public sphere then is to ensure that there is space to debate, discuss and talk about our theological and moral positions in society without the fear of censure.

The space for faith in the public sphere is not simply for politicians however, it is something we believe extends to all, whether it be the right to wear the Muslim hijab in a French university or the right to wear a cross as a British nurse.

Finally, when discussing faith in the public sphere we must also discuss secularism. European secularism is an emerging concept. It is different from American secularism and different too from Indian secularism. Britain, with the Anglican Church but with devolved nations who have no state religion, provides a singular arena to discuss secularism, what it looks like today and what it may look like tomorrow. The notion of Nation State is still young, and secularism is its first child. Within the pages of On Religion, secularism will be a recurring theme of discussion.

To provide a forum to discuss the social, moral, philosophical and theological issues of the modern world.

In the pages of On Religion we hope to give space to academics, faith leaders and indeed the lay person to debate and provide commentary on the big questions of life in a modern era.

At times these questions will be self-evident, issues such as euthanasia, abortion and multiculturalism. At times we hope to raise these questions ourselves, to examine the nature of our establishments and the reality of our society.

On Religion hopes to question the purpose, nature, theology and ethics of our culture, society and institutions.

Through all of our three objectives our primary goal is simple, to increase the religious literacy of society. We live in an area of false dichotomies – East versus West, religion versus science, liberal versus conservative – that do little to describe the complexity of life. By increasing religious literacy, we hope to show the more nuanced and multi-dimensional dynamics of life.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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