Interview – Theos

Founded in 2006, Theos is a think tank that aims to bring balance to the debate about religion in public life. We began working with Theos in 2015 to develop a brand that celebrates the historic value of faith’s influence on society. Theos’ Director Elizabeth Oldfield discussed with us how they use research to challenge and change ill–informed ideas, and why that’s important.

Interviews | 6 Minutes read | Michael Gough

Interview – Theos
Interview – Theos

Why did Theos start, and how has it evolved?

The debate about religion in public life had become quite shrill and poorly informed. The idea was to try and provide some balance. We started to do really rigorous research to challenge some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings. We also began to engage the media and run events, trying to make the case for the positive role that faith can play in diverse communities. The Bible Society (the charity of which we’re a part) gave us seed funding, and continues to give very welcome core funding. We’re also funded by grants from trusts and foundations, and by individual givers who give monthly. We do consultancy, too, which is income generating. Since 2006, we’ve grown to 16 people, but the heart of it has very much stayed the same. We want to provide a rigorous, intelligent, credible, gracious voice in public conversations. And we’ve got better at it, and increased the breadth of the research that we do, our focus, and our ability to communicate powerfully to our audiences. We’re learning as we go.

Why does religion matter today – and how will the landscape evolve?

There’s an interesting thing happening generationally, where you’ve got young people coming through that have much less baggage about religion than those who are older. They have lower levels of knowledge, but also less instinctive hostility. These people tend to be very open to spirituality, meaning, purpose and belonging. They certainly haven’t bought a straightforwardly materialist view. From the economics of the way the world is set up, and with a generation of inequality, it’s clear that getting a nice job and a nice house isn’t particularly possible. But they also see that people who have those things aren’t necessarily satisfied, so they’re looking for meaning and purpose elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s going to get harder or easier for Theos in that context. In some ways, I don’t want to spend much time dwelling on that. We’re just called to do what we can, to be faithful in that, to keep holding out wisdom, and find ways to build bridges with audiences that don’t know they need it or want it. For us, the key thing is to be audience–centred and very attuned to those outside the church and what they might be interested in, speaking their language. We put more and more focus on that as we go. 

Why does your work matter? If Theos didn’t exist, what would we miss?

I think people who are interested in ideas, non–religious audiences, would miss the riches of these traditions presented in an accessible, audience–appropriate way – one they don’t feel scared off by. Christians, I think, a lot of them, would really miss the presence of an intelligent, informed, thoughtful, gracious perspective in public, one that they feel represents their own lived experience of their faith.

What brought you, personally, to Theos? And why have you stayed?

I’ve been at Theos for more than seven years. My background was at the BBC, and I have an interest in media and communications, particularly in cultural stories and the stories that we tell about ourselves. For example, what human beings are like, what a good life is, and what role faith can play in that. I circled around that through my career in the media, coming to Theos with a frustration that no voice was available to me in making programmes, and wanting to help fix that problem. Today, the challenge remains the same. I stay at Theos because I find the work intellectually fascinating and personally very satisfying. 

In leading Theos, what are the main challenges?

Loads! I think that we’ve got a population in the UK, most of whom view religion either as increasingly irrelevant or irrational, or for some of them downright dangerous and problematic. And we’re trying to tell a different story. Earning the right to do that, and doing it well, is an ongoing challenge.

Could you give any examples of how your work is influencing opinion and shaping debate?

We’ve established ourselves as a credible voice in debates about faith in the public square. We’re regularly featured in the mainstream media, from The Economist to The Financial Times, The Washington Post to The Guardian. My colleague Nick has an upcoming Radio 4 series, and my head of research is about to publish a book on the future of the West. 2009 was Charles Darwin’s anniversary year, and we did a huge amount of work on the relationship between religion and science: Rescuing Darwin. As researchers we don’t like to claim anything, but we felt that because of our work, coverage was much more accurate in reflecting the complexity of those issues, Darwin’s own journey, and how the relationship between science and religion has been and is very productive. More recently we did a big report on chaplaincy, looking at it as a wider phenomenon rather than sector specific. As the first big report on this, it’s been very influential on that sector, and a lot of it has been incorporated into chaplaincy training and into the way the sector thinks of itself. At the moment, we’re doing a big project on universities, and we’ve given evidence to the joint committee of the House of Commons on freedom of speech, and to the Human Rights Commission. Both have taken on board our perspectives and guidance about how we shape university campuses. That launches in July 2019.

What are your future priorities for Theos?

Increasingly, people who are interested in ideas will come to us when those ideas intersect with religious issues in the broad sense, knowing they can get from us a perspective that’s going to be non–tribal and thoughtful and informed. We’ll continue to do that, and we’ll have activity around three key areas of focus. The first one is called ‘Living together’, which is about our plural public life and how we navigate our differences. This would be things like freedom of speech, extremism, polarisation, tribalism, and a variety of things about our differences. The second stream is called ‘Doing good’ and that’s really about the Church’s practical action in communities and what they’re doing well, what can be improved, and paying attention to that because it’s a real growth area. And then the final one is currently ‘Being human’; Christian anthropology really, what’s the wisdom from the Christian tradition: why Christians believe what they believe, how we change our minds, our fallibility, the limits of reason, all those kinds of things. We research in those areas, we continue to produce a podcast, and we want to move into making more short–form video content.


Read our case study on Theos