Faith no more?

by Hamish MacPherson, 22 June 2007

Hamish MacPherson looks at inter-faith dialogue and calls for non-religious groups to be included

The Commission for Integration and Cohesion’s final report, published on 14 June, contained a number of predictable messages about the importance of both faith groups and local government developing and deepening inter-faith programmes. These messages are ubiquitous: from the local government white paper recommending that inter-faith councils be developed locally, to Tony Blair’s reported plans to establish a three faiths foundation after he stands down as prime minister.

Since 1970, the number of organisations in Britain set up to promote links between religions has risen from a handful to well over 100, and looks set to keep growing. As the Inter Faith Network celebrates its twentieth birthday this year, the UK’s inter-faith scene has never looked so healthy.

Immigration to the UK has brought greater numbers of religious believers without any experience of institutional secularism. Stronger international networks mean that the smallest religious populations are less likely to feel isolated. And, more controversially, extremists have sought to define and divide the world along religious lines.

Efforts by inter-faith groups to build bridges between different religions seem entirely sensible. But their exclusion of ‘non-believers’ is not.

The current prominence of inter-faith groups has been interpreted by some as a reversal of secularisation. And yet religious attendance and belief continue to shrink. Research by Christian charity the Tear Fund this year found that 39 per cent of Britons have no religion and three-quarters of adults do not attend church even once a year.

But while arguments over whether religion is on the up or near its end are likely to rage on indefinitely, what seems clearer is that divisions between proponents of each view are growing wider, and opposing views are becoming more entrenched. The danger is that we become locked into two equally crude, generalised mindsets.

The first of these mindsets sees religion as universally in the ascendant, at best believing therefore that unions should be built between the faithful, ignoring the non-religious, and, at worse, that only one religion should prosper. The second sees religion as an unimportant relic of the past, which has no place in public life. Neither will get us anywhere pleasant.

The former way of thinking can lead to the baseless view that irreligious societies are amoral and degenerate, while the latter has been buoyed by the recent spate of bestselling books taking an ardently anti-religious (and, some would say, proselytising) line, such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great.

On the face of it, any kind of resolution between the two camps seems unlikely: only 12 of the 253 inter-faith bodies in the UK have humanist representatives, which means that a potentially significant opportunity for communication and interaction is being lost.

For the religious, widening inter-faith dialogue to include the non-religious means opening up entry to the club and losing the privileges of membership. And, for some on both ‘sides’, prejudice can make the idea unthinkable. Including anyone but the most active believers in inter-faith dialogue is also logistically difficult. While it is relatively simple to bring together people from religious organisations to discuss common ground, trying to engage those unaffiliated to any religion tends to be much more difficult. Many humanists (but also some religious people) see themselves as free-willed and so deliberately steer clear of traditional, organised groups. But none of this negates the need for inclusive dialogue.

It is encouraging therefore that the Commission for Integration and Cohesion is making (modest) calls for ‘a more constructive conversation between those who are religious and those who are not’.

There are enough examples of inclusion to prove that this is perfectly possible. Humanists have been involved in the Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource since its establishment in 1993; in the 1970s, years before the foundation of bodies such as the Inter Faith Network, the British Humanist Association co-founded the Standing Council on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education together with Jews and Christians; and, along with religious believers, they co-founded the Social Morality Council (now the Norham Foundation).

However, inclusive inter-belief dialogue is only part of the answer.

A more powerful method is to bring people together, not as Hindus, humanists or Christians, but as a netball team, an environmental campaign or as a street: places where differences can be replaced with similarities, however temporarily.

For any contact to be productive, it must occur within a broader framework of equality. When it comes to religion and belief, this must mean secularism – the clear separation between religion and politics.

Secularism has become synonymous with atheism in recent times, but the conflation is inaccurate. It is also misleading to see it and religion as mutually exclusive: there are many religious people who believe faith should remain separate from the political or public sphere – a view being put forward by organisations such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy and Christian think-tank Ekklesia.

Secularism is the only framework by which all people of different religions and beliefs can live together on an equal footing. It would therefore would be a disastrous and backwards step if, as some have suggested, a reformed House of Lords contained reserved seats for additionalreligions, rather than none at all.

To say that the state has no religion does not mean that the state is anti-religion, or blind to the needs of different groups. It does not have to demand that hijabs and dastars are banned, that the contributions of religious organisations to civil society are not recognised, or that pupils do not learn about different religions and beliefs in school.

It is only by protecting the secular state that we can make sure that no one – of any religion or none – is excluded or disadvantaged. Even those currently benefiting from privilege should subscribe to secularism in the name of justice, magnanimity and, less nobly, insurance.

Hamish MacPherson is a postgraduate student of human values and contemporary global ethics at King’s College, London and founder of the O Project. This Article originally appeared in the Catalyst website

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