Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief

United Kingdom

Series exploring the place and nature of faith in today's world



From the Charlie Hebdo shootings a year ago to the November terrorist atrocities in Paris, a string of Islamist attacks has left French society reeling in the face of home-grown terror. The events raise many issues, including the nature of religious and cultural integration in France. Secularism is a defining principle of the State. Faith is practiced in private and not in public. However, the way the French government is applying the concept of "Laïcité" has come under increasing criticism. Ernie Rea discusses religion in secular France with Kay Chadwick, Reader in French Historical Studies at Liverpool University; Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Inter-religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh; and Natasha Lehrer, writer and literary editor of the Jewish Quarterly. Producer: Dan Tierney Series producer: Amanda Hancox.

Religion and Psychotherapy  

There is a long Christian history of exploring the self. Some of the greatest Christian theologians wrote about the importance of the inner life; and in times of distress and suffering it was the Church people turned to for both confession and counsel. Things began to change in the 20th century with the emergence of psychoanalysis and the writings of Sigmund Freud. No longer were ideas about the inner life the preserve of the Church. Psychotherapy was seen as a threat by the Institution; and religion, conversely, was viewed with suspicion among many psychotherapists. Are religion and psychotherapy at war with one another? Or are they more compatible than we might think? Can they be reconciled? Ernie Rea discusses whether Christianity or psychotherapy provides the more reliable guide to the inner life with Mark Vernon, a psychotherapist and writer; psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose; and Reverend Dr Andrew Walker, Director of the St Marylebone Healing and Counselling Centre. Producer: Dan Tierney Series producer: Amanda Hancox.

Heaven and the Afterlife  

The question of what happens after we die is central to the world's faith traditions. How has the belief in an afterlife developed across the religions? And what does Heaven mean to people of faith today? Ernie Rea discusses the concept of the afterlife with Shaunaka Rishi Das, Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies; Dr Shuruq Naguib, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Lancaster University; and the writer and broadcaster Peter Stanford. Producer: Amanda Hancox.


December 21st - the shortest day in the year - is the day pagans across Europe are marking the Winter Solstice; an ancient festival, connected to the lowest position of the sun in the sky. It has been celebrated for millennia, and yet, its relationship to the relatively recent Christian celebration of Christmas is inseparable. It is no coincidence that a festival marking the 'rebirth' of the new sun in the sky comes just days before the celebration of the birth of Jesus, seen by Christians as the Son of God. How did this relationship develop? Where did many of the familiar customs we associate with Christmas come from? Ernie Rea explores the pagan origins of Christmas with Ronald Hutton, professor of History at Bristol University; JJ Middleway, a celebrant and ritualist based in the Druid tradition; and the reverend Steve Hollinghurst, a Church of England vicar and author of 'New Age Paganism and Christian Mission'. Producer: Amanda Hancox.


Birth rates in Western Europe have been dropping steadily. In the 1970s, one in ten British women reached the menopause without having children. Today it is one in five. Earlier this year Pope Francis told an audience in St Peter's Square that, "The choice not to have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies; it is enriched, not impoverished." Is he right? Does the biblical injunction to "Go forth and multiply" still hold true? To what extent does the stigma of infertility still exist within society? Ernie Rea discusses issues around childlessness with Khola Hasan, an Islamic scholar, writer and broadcaster who sits on the Islamic Shariah Council; Dovid Lewis, who is the Rabbi of South Manchester Synagogue; and Dr Dawn Llewellyn, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies at the University of Chester who has carried out research into voluntary childlessness among Christian women in Britain. Producer: Dan Tierney Series producer: Amanda Hancox.

50 Years of Nostra Aetate  

It is 50 years since the publication of the Vatican document 'Nostra Aetate' which transformed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and other religions, most notably Judaism. At only a few paragraphs in length, this short text has been widely seen as one of the most remarkable moments in the turbulent history of interfaith relations. How did it come about? What can we say it has really achieved? And how does it fit into the world in which we now live? Ernie Rea explores the impact of 'Nostra Aetate' with Archbishop Kevin McDonald, Emeritus Catholic Archbishop of Southwark and chair of the Bishops' Conference Committee for Other Faiths and of the Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations; Dr Ed Kessler, Founder-Director of the interfaith organisation, the Woolf Institute; and Oliver McTernan, Director of the conflict-resolution charity 'Forward Thinking', which works among communities in the UK and the Middle East. Producer: Amanda Hancox.

Interfaith Marriage  

There are big challenges faced by interfaith couples today; where to get married, how to bring up the children and where to be laid to rest. They are the concern of all faiths. As British society becomes more multicultural, are these challenges becoming greater for those who chose to marry someone of a different faith? Ernie Rea discusses the pros and cons of interfaith marriage with Asad Zaman, an Imam for over 20 years who leads the Friday prayers at several mosques across Manchester; Dr Jonathan Romain, a Reform Rabbi who has written extensively on interfaith marriage; and Rosalind Birtwistle, Co-Founder of the Interfaith Marriage Network, who is a Christian married to a Jew. Producer: Dan Tierney Series producer: Amanda Hancox.

How Islamic is the So-Called Islamic State?  

In claiming responsibility for the Paris atrocities, the so-called Islamic State described the attacks as "a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah". Last year, when the group's self-imposed Caliphate was declared, hundreds of Muslim leaders and scholars from across the world wrote an open letter to the self-professed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accusing him of heinous war crimes and a violation of the fundamental principles of Islam. So how Islamic is 'Islamic State'? Why have mainstream interpretations of Islam so far failed to provide an effective counter-narrative? What needs to happen for the group to be defeated? William Crawley discusses the beliefs which underpin the so-called Islamic State in the light of the Paris terrorist attacks with Sheikh Dr Salah Al Ansari, an Imam, theologian and academic; Haras Rafiq, Managing Director of the anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation; and Dr Katherine Brown, an expert in Islamic Studies at King's College London. Producer: Dan Tierney Series producer: Amanda Hancox.

The Family  

This week the Catholic Church began its second Synod on the Family. After a year of reflection and discussion, there has been much speculation as to what might emerge. The model for what constitutes a family has posed difficulties for Christianity down through the centuries. The greatly increased divorce rate, the movement for gay and lesbian equality; the possibility for surrogate children, all pose challenges for churches of all denominations which have longstanding theological ideas about what a family is and what it is for. Joining Ernie Rea to discuss the family is Dr Clare Watkins, Lecturer in Ministerial Theology at the University of Roehamption in London; the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, Anglican Bishop of Buckingham; and the Rev Dr Paul Middleton, Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Early Christianity at Chester University and a minister of the Church of Scotland. Producer: Amanda Hancox.

New Religious Communities  

Of all the career choices open to young people, entering a religious community must come fairly near the bottom of the list. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has set up a new community based at Lambeth Palace for young Christian people from all over the world. About 500 started the application and 16 have been chosen. They will have the opportunity to live in the Palace for a year, experiencing a daily round of prayer, silence and work. They will be supported by another 20 who will share some of the community life while continuing with their jobs. Religious orders have been in steep numerical decline since the 1960s, but in recent years new communities like the Archbishop's, have emerged. So what is this new movement all about? Could it be bucking a cultural trend? Will it bring new life to the church? Ernie Rea is joined by Mark Berry, a member of "Safespace," a new monastic community in Telford; Sister Dr Gemma Simmonds, Director of the Religious Life Institute, Heythrop College, London and a Trustee of the new St Anselm's Community at Lambeth Palace; and Dr Abby Day Senior Research Fellow in the Anthropology of Sociology and Religion at The University of Kent. Producer: Nija Dalal-Small.


A hundred years ago the trenches had been dug and British and German soldiers were engaged in bloody combat in Flanders and Gallipoli. Faced by the scale of the slaughter, many people turned to pacifism, the idea that all resistance to evil should be non-violent. It was not a new idea; some Eastern religions adopt it as their default position. But the deadly potency of weapons of mass destruction have reopened the debate in the West. Is pacifism a viable option in a world of nuclear weapons and drone aircraft? Ernie Rea is joined by Pat Gaffney from the Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi; Jonathan Romain, Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire; and Major General Tim Cross who has seen active service in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, and in Kuwait and Iraq during the First Gulf War and is now Chairman of the Christian Think Tank, Theos. Produced by Nija Dalal-Small.


What do Muhammad Ali, Helen Shapiro and John Travolta have in common? They all changed their religion. They abandoned the traditions in which they had been brought up in favour of something different. In some cases, it produced a great sense of betrayal. Some religious groups will cut off friends and family who renounce their religion. Life for the so-called betrayer can be very difficult indeed. The idea of betrayal runs very deep in many religions. Why? And what does it actually signify? Ernie Rea is joined by Prakash Shah, Director of the Centre for Culture and Law at Queen Mary, University of London; Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawar, Chief Executive of the Spiritual Capital Foundation Think Tank; and Douglas Davies, Professor in the Study of Religion at Durham University. Produced by Nija Dalal-Small.


You may be surprised to learn that one of the best-selling poets in America today is a man who lived and died 800 years ago. The Persian-born Rumi, Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Rumi, to give him his full name, was a Sufi master who wrote ecstatic poems about joy and love and separation and pain. One respected scholar compares Rumi's work to Shakespeare's for "its resonance and beauty." Contemporary artists as diverse as Madonna and Philip Glass acknowledge their debt to him. But the popular editions of his work, much edited, contain little evidence of his Muslim origins. Has he been sanitised for a sensitive modern reader? Has his religion been removed from his poetry to help him become a more universal figure? Ernie Rea is joined by Fatemah Keshavarz, Director of the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park; Alan Williams, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester; and Shahram Shiva, a Rumi Translator and scholar Produced by Nija Dalal-Small.


Discussion programme in which guests from different faith and non-faith perspectives debate the challenges of today's world.


The luxury hotels in the beach resorts of Tunisia which were once packed with tourists now lie nearly empty. The slaughter on the beach at Sousse on June 26th has added Tunisia to a growing list of no-go areas for Western tourists. Tunisia is 99% Muslim but was considered an oasis of secularism in the Arab World. Its revolution in 2011 marked the beginning of The Arab Spring, bringing democratic government in place of a dictatorship. But all those hopes now appear to have turned to dust. Tunisia sends more fighters to Syria than any other Arab country, perhaps as many as 3000. Tunisia is now ruled by a coalition that includes an overtly Islamist party, called Ennahda. So what does the future hold for the country? Is it going down a radical route? Ernie Rea is joined by Zoe Petkanas, working on a Ph.D on Gender, Law and Social Change in North Africa at Cambridge University; Dr Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Centre of the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington D.C.; and Berny Sebe, Senior Lecturer in colonial and post colonial studies at Birmingham University. Produced by Nija Dalal-Small.

Religion and Debt  

The Greek Debt Crisis has highlighted in the most dramatic way just how much our economic systems depend on borrowed money. The figures of international debt are mind boggling. In the economies of wealthy countries like the United States and the UK, around 97-98% of the money is debt. It is money whose value rests not on something that exists in the present but on something that might exist in the future. We are all living with debt. People in the UK owed £1.436 trillion at the end of May 2015, according to The Money Charity, up from £1.407 trillion at the end of May 2014. That's an extra £584 per adult. We have learnt to live with credit, whether it be a mortgage or a loan for a car or just a credit card account which spirals out of control. It seems that debt has become an essential part of personal finance. But is that healthy? Or ethical? And do our religious traditions have anything to say about our reliance on debt? Ernie Rea is joined by Habib Ahmed, Sharjah Chair in Islamic Law and Finance at Durham University Business School; Paul Francois Tremlett, Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at the Open University; and Michelle Swallow, Debt Advisor at the organisation Christians Against Poverty. Produced by Nija Dalal-Small.


To Muslims, Muhammed is the most important person who ever lived. He is the Seal or the last of all the prophets, the one chosen by God to receive his final revelation. To insult the memory of the Prophet is a blasphemy and a body blow to the Muslim believer. It can carry terrible consequences as the staff of Charlie Hebdo discovered when they published cartoons which were thought by Muslims to be demeaning their Prophet. The Qur'an tells us very little about Muhammed. What we do know comes from the stories and traditions about the Prophet, known as the Hadiths, which were compiled after his death. Those stories provide moral examples of how to behave; but they also impact all of Islamic history. Ernie Rea is joined by Jonathan Brown, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilisation at Georgetown University; Sahib Bleher, Imam and author on the Qur'an; and Tom Holland, a Classicist and author of several best selling books including In The Shadow of the Sword, on the origins of Islam. Produced by Nija Dalal-Small.


The very public failures of the Mid Staffordshire National Health Service Foundation Trust raised serious questions about the standard of care in some hospitals. Two Enquiries agreed that there had been "appalling" emergency care with deficiencies at "virtually every stage." What would have prevented such a humanitarian failure? Some said that an obsession with targets and bureaucracy had been allowed to obscure the needs of patients. Others suggested that nurses in particular had lost the capacity to care. Again and again we heard the word "Compassion". Good old fashioned Compassion - a concept central to the world's religious tradition - just wasn't fashionable in an individualistic and competitive society. Ernie Rea is joined by Paul Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at the University of Derby: Anna Smajdor lecturer in Medical Ethics at the University of East Anglia; and Joshua Hordern Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford. Producer: Rosie Dawson.


In January Alexis Tsipras became Prime Minister of Greece and formed a coalition government with the nationalist Independent Greek Party. Tsipras is a radical, committed to ending austerity. He is also an atheist who publicly declared that he wants to move Greece in a secular direction. That would be a radical move, for Greek Orthodoxy is the only legally recognised religion and may command the loyalty of up to 97% of the Greek people. Tsipras did not take a religious oath on taking office. But since then he has been seen attending Orthodox Services; and has been making friendly overtures to Orthodox Clergy. Church attendance in Greece is low; but Orthodoxy appears to be deeply embedded in the identity of the Greek people. It is almost part of their DNA. Why is that? And how does it impact on the lives of ordinary people? Joining Ernie to discuss the influence of the Orthodox Church within modern Greece are the Rev Vasileios Papathanasiou, priest at the Grreek Orthodox Cathedra; of the Holy Cross and St Michael in Golders Green; Stavroula Pipyrou Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews; and Daphne Halikiopoulou, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading. Producer: Rosie Dawson.

Religion and Earthquakes  

Kathmandu was a city of temples. Now it is a city of tents." That was the comment of one observer after the two recent earthquakes which struck Nepal. Thousands have died; many more made homeless in one of the world's poorest countries. Nepal is overwhelmingly Hindu; central to the Hindu belief is karma, the conviction that every action produces an equal reaction; that suffering in this life is a consequence of your actions in a previous life. How do such beliefs sit alongside an understanding of plate tectonics? After the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which killed an estimated 60,000 people, many theologians abandoned the attempt to explain such disasters in terms of God. What might be the effect of this disaster on the religious beliefs of people in Nepal? Joining Ernie to discuss how religious responses to earthquakes and other Natural Disasters are Edward Simpson, Professor of Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, author of "the Political biography on an earthquake" about the aftermath of earthquakes in Western India: Atreyee Sen, Lecturer in Contemporary Religion and Conflict at the University of Manchester; and The Rev David Chester, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Liverpool Hope University.

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