Simon Barrow

Faith and beliefs today: how do we go forward?

By Simon Barrow
August 5, 2013

Twenty years ago, many public commentators believed that religion was dead, or at least 'on the way out'. How wrong that proved.

While 'established religions' (like state-sponsored churches in Europe) have been on the decline, we have seen a resurgence of religious diversity globally, the growth of Islam and Christianity in Africa, Asia and China, the emergence of 'spirituality without religion', plus a significant expansion of non-religious views and lifestyles.

The scene is changing rapidly, and it would be more accurate to say that beliefs are reforming and mutating rather than shrinking overall. That said, there is both decline and increase in different regions and belief systems, as well as serious questioning of the way religions get embroiled in statecraft.

All this raises in ever-sharper forms the question of what faith today means and what it will mean in the future.

This, of course, is one of the topics being explored in the variety of conversations, talks and workshops taking place at the Just Festival 2013, as well as at Greenbelt and elsewhere over the summer period.

Former bishop Professor Richard Holloway, whose personal journey has embraced both faith and scepticism, is one seasoned observer of all this. He now plays a big role in the support of arts and culture in Scotland, but he was formerly Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

He comments: "Human history has been one of almost constant change. Sometimes the change has been slow and evolutionary; sometimes it has been fast and revolutionary. In the modern era it has been almost unbearably rapid.

"In my own lifetime I have witnessed at least three revolutions, all of which have had a profound impact on religion. The communications revolution has brought the world into our living rooms. This is sometimes described as ‘the death of distance’: everything is much closer, including much we’d rather not know about. The transportation revolution has shrunk the world and brought very different cultural and political traditions together, often uncomfortably.

And the feminist revolution has challenged male dominance of the institutions of society, including religion. Taken together, these revolutions have had a profoundly destabilising effect on faith communities, most of which trace their self-understanding back to pre-modern male dominated cultures.

"And I haven’t even mentioned science and the way it has revolutionised our understanding of the origins of the physical universe! No wonder faith communities are in turmoil as they try to calibrate their responses to this revolutionary situation.

"One thing seems clear to me as we contemplate this tumult: there can be no going back. The question is: how can we go forward?"

Professor Holloway is also part of a challenging conversation on 'A world without religion?' at the Just Festival in Edinburgh tonight (5 August 2013) - and the fact that it has already sold out seems to be an indicator that it is one quite a few people care about, from different angles.

Here on Ekklesia, we are of course deeply engaged in these issues, both in their broader policy and academic frames, but also practically in promoting ideas like 'disorganised religion', the perspective of Anabaptism and the peace churches, and the idea that 'subversive orthodoxy' (the truly radical implications of traditional Christian faith) might challenge simplistic notions about the future religious choice being between authoritarian fundamentalisms or reductionist rationalisms.

In developing the dialogue, Ekklesia is delighted to be working with Just (see below), but also with our partners the Critical Religion Association (, the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (, the Anabaptist Theology Forum (, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church ( and others.

Over the next few weeks there are also plenty of other enlivening conversations, some with a religious dimension and some not so much, at Just. We know that readers won't be able to get to all of them, which is why reports, comment, interviews and more will be relayed online.

* The Just Festival, also known simply as Just, runs from 2-26 August 2013. It is based at St John's Church (Princes Street and Lothian Road) and some 27 other venues, and combines artistic and performance style events with conversations, talks, films exhibits and other ways of exploring how to live together creatively in a mixed-belief society.

* For more information on Just Festival, visit and

* Ekklesia is a sponsor of Just Festival. Our news, reporting and comment is aggregated at:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a media adviser for the 2013 Just Festival. He is also on the executive committee of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.