Religion and Social Innovation

01.09.2014 Blog

It is often said that social innovation is a broad church, with researchers coming from many different disciplines – sociology, business studies, urban planning, economics etc. However, one subject that’s rarely mentioned in connection with social innovation is religious studies. As somebody who spent five years studying religion, I wanted to use this blog post to offer some brief thoughts on the many connections between the two fields.

In my opinion,  the history of religion is a history of social innovation. The word religion may originate from the Latin word ligare, to bind together, and I believe that the different world religions represent different ways of organizing and understanding societies. What is so interesting about them is that they have not remained static, and instead religions are constantly changing, and reinterpreting scripture to respond to contemporary challenges. This is the work of thelogy. Stemming from theology comes religious practice, which has often been at the forefront of social innovation. Nesta has just published eighteen leading examples of social innovation in the UK, of which three - First Aid, Girlguiding and the hospice movement - have Christian roots. Even today, the rise of food banks as a response to austerity measures has been led by the Christian organisation The Trussell Trust

Part of the reason why religions have so consistently been socially innovative is that they were responding to social problems long before the state accepted these as its responsibility. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have laws to encourage their adherents to give a percentage of their income to charity. Therefore, it was historically religious bodies that would operate orphanages, shelters and dispense medical care. This only changed in the UK after Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, but the church has continued to operate services alongside those provided by the state.

Not only do religions have a history of helping to meet urgent social needs, they also provide a solution to more ubiquitous social problems. These include loneliness, the search for meaning, the need for community, and the desire to contribute. Research shows that those who are part of a religious community are less likely to suffer from depression. Indeed, religions have been so successful at helping people to understand and organize their lives, and form communities, that secular organisations and traditions are now emerging that fulfil some of these functions in very similar ways. One example would be the Sunday Assembly, which hosts monthly ‘services’ which involve singing, sermons and reflective readings – just none of these to do with God. Another example would be the creation of the weekend, which was inspired by the religious custom of the Sabbath. The runaway success of both these innovations shows that the rise in secularism has allowed some social needs to go unaddressed, and that religions have more to teach social innovation practitioners than might be immediately obvious.

It would be impossible to write a blogpost such as this without acknowledging the more controversial aspects of religion – but I believe that this is simply an extension of the truism that all social innovations have winners and losers. Moreover, who gets to define what constitutes a social need says a lot about who holds power within that society. For example, variants of Islam, Judaism and Christianity all require that believers cover certain parts of their bodies when in public. These laws are intended to meet a social need, helping people to go about their daily lives without distraction, yet many would claim that the laws disproportionally affect women, who have historically had little input into religious leadership. Indeed, this is often explicitly directed in religious scriptures. This is changing however, and very recently the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops, after long and complex theological debate.

Hopefully this piece has given a feel for the many interconnections between social innovation and religious studies. One thing I found easier about studying religion than social innovation is that in theology, normative questions are much more clearly out in the open. If you ask a Christian why their church is providing a food bank, they will be able to point you to Bible verses and commentary that describe the need to care for the poor and why this is important. Sometimes I wish that social innovation practitioners were clearer about who is experiencing a social need, why a response is needed and who will be the winners and losers.

Photo by Wagner T. Cassimiro "Aranha" on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.