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Talking about faith in superdiverse spaces

Stephen Pihlaja, Reader in English Language and Linguistics at Newman University

With the publication of the 2021 Census data, many urban centres in the UK can now be described as ‘superdiverse’: that is, Britain is becoming increasingly a country of minorities. Major urban centres like Birmingham are no longer majority white, and districts full of many different groups of immigrants can be found around the country.

The consequences for these demographic changes are as varied and diverse as the citizens themselves, but one area that remains essential for a peaceful, productive diverse society is the ability to talk about our differences in a way that regards them as a strength rather than a weakness. It is important too, to make space for everyone, particularly children and young people, to understand and appreciate what makes them unique and what they share in common with others.

‘One area that remains essential for a peaceful, productive diverse society is the ability to talk about our differences in a way that regards them as a strength rather than a weakness.’

For the past two years, I’ve been exploring how people talk about their faith in superdiverse contexts, as a part of an AHRC-funded project called ‘Language and Religion in the Superdiverse City’. My study was conducted in collaboration with Citizens UK Birmingham, a diverse civil society alliance bringing together education, community, trade union and faith-based organisations in the city committed to using community organising to generate collective power for social change.

My research involved more than 50 site visits and informal conversations with leaders and community members to find out how religious identity influences the way that people understand themselves and those around them in the city. Interviews were carried out with 24 of the leaders and community members to explore how they understand their own religious identity, and their own religious community in this superdiverse city.

The main takeaways from the research were:

  • Stories are incredibly important for understanding who you are, both in regard to your religious identity and how you see your place in civil society. People spent less time talking about beliefs when they were asked about their religious identity, and more time talking about what their community and faith tradition valued and what their experiences taught them about how they should view the world.
  • Racism and discrimination are still serious problems in the UK and people from minority religious and ethnic communities, even in superdiverse contexts, are still subject to judgements about them, based largely on how they look. Media narratives about minority religious communities are still felt to be largely negative and people from minority ethnic and religious communities are very much aware that there are places they do not feel welcome or safe.
  • People are largely happy in diverse spaces and see those around them as members of their community. Even when people do not share the same religious faith, they quite often have similar values and many organisations throughout the city are eager to work together to promote a common good and understanding. People do not want to ‘keep to themselves’, but to share life together.

To help educators, teachers and religious leaders encourage talk about faith in different contexts, I developed the following model underpinned by input from my participants:

  1. Relax. Everyone has different ideas and beliefs about the world. Celebrate who you are and don’t worry about what others will think.
  2. Tell your Story. What you think and believe is a part of your unique experience. Don’t be afraid to tell people about what you’ve experienced.
  3. Be curious. Just like you, everyone else has their own story. Listen to what they have to say and ask questions.
  4. Find common ground. Even though we’re different, we often have a lot in common. Look for the similarities in others.
  5. Change your mind. It’s okay to change what you think. Let new experiences affect how you see the world.

To learn more about the research and keep up to date on academic publications from the project, please visit the Superdivercity website, or contact me directly at The following infographic is free to be used without modification for education and non-profit purposes.