Professor Linda Woodhead MBE

MA (Cambridge), BA (Cambridge)

I grew up near Glastonbury in Somerset, a centre for alternative spirituality. I attended a Church of England primary school, a strict Catholic convent school, and a secular comprehensive school. It was this mad mix which made me interested in beliefs, values and religion. How could people in the same area believe such different things with such conviction? And which ones were true?

I studied Theology and Religious Studies to try and make sense of it. I loved theology but it left me with a strong sense that it’s not just what people say that matters but what they do, so I retrained as a sociologist of religion and began to study ‘real’ religion – talking to people, observing their lives, carrying out surveys, relating it all to wider social contexts and changes.

My work has covered:

  • Christianity worldwide and its changing forms
    • The growth of alternative spiritualities
    • Gender, sexuality, power and religion
    • The rise of ‘no religion’ and the values and beliefs of the ‘nones’
    • The values and beliefs of young people, especially post-millennials
    • New publics, online and offline

Research is a joint enterprise with the people you are studying – you learn from each other. That’s true of teaching too. It’s a privilege to teach, and I learn from my students all the time.

And which beliefs turned out to be true? I don’t think it makes sense to say that ‘religion’ (or ‘secularism’) is true. I’ve seen people turn crazy beliefs into something truthful, and elegant beliefs into something hellish. It’s the lived realities of religion and non-religion which count, and studying them helps give you perspective on your own life and culture as well as other people’s.