Religious Faith in the Public Realm

Tony Blair speaking at a conference on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, taken by Joel Wood 2010

There are many today in the West who see any form of religion as a phenomenon of bygone years, remarking that they find it unbelievable that it has any place in today’s world. This is apparent from a cursory glance at any online discussion of religion where one will find frequent references to the Middle Ages and the tooth fairy.

Furthermore there are those who would argue not just that it is surprising that religion is still around, but that its existence is damaging and holds civilization back from progress. Often, it is the quality of religious faith itself that is attacked, especially when defined as it is by Richard Dawkins as “belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” It is claimed that its unchallengeable nature makes it especially powerful and that humanity would be a lot better off if it were eradicated.

Regarding the fact of the prominence of religion in today’s western world, I would argue that in Britain at least, a definite retreat has been witnessed in the last 100 years. Despite the 2001 census claiming that over 70% of the population identify themselves as Christian, actual practical adherence to Christianity in the form of Church attendance has dropped dramatically. Some argue for “believing without belonging” – the idea that most of the population are just as spiritual as they were before, but it is expressed more privately, but the amount of people who report themselves as being this way inclined is not close to the amount that have left the churches.

It is understandable then given this trend, that many express surprise and dismay that religion is often afforded such attention in public discourse. As much as some may like to deny the importance or beneficence of religion it cannot be denied that it still demands attention. Two particular religious events have recently been the focus of public attention: the Pope’s visit and the potential Koran bonfire. Perhaps it is telling that these have predominantly been concerned with negative aspects; religious intolerance, terrorism, conflicts with modern science and infliction of human suffering by religious leaders.

The influence of religious faith itself in these issues can be debated though. As much as some like to claim that the power of religion is dwindling, others seem to attribute far too much power to it. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard “Religion does this…” and “Religion wants to do that…” and had to point out that in fact, religion is not an autonomous being itself and it is actually people who do things. Certain actors may have religious motivations, but human beings are complicated creatures with multiple concerns. Who is to say blithely that the whole problem with the Middle East peace process is religion, without a detailed analysis of other cultural, economic and political factors?

A few high profile individuals recently have gone somewhat against the grain however by claiming that, far from being unimportant or even dangerous, religious faith is a force for the good and essential to our future. The Pope claimed this on his visit, even going so far as encouraging all faiths to unite against rampant secularism. David Cameron has chipped in as well. It is easy to be cynical about his contribution by suggesting that it is a political move to curry favour with the religious, both domestically and internationally, but maybe there is more to it than that.

The quick dismissal of the debate about where morality fits into a world without religion in New Atheism does not aid its cause; more respect would probably be given to the atheists position if they took into account the genuine ethical problem that arises in a world without God (as historical atheists such as Bertrand Russell took pains to do). Perhaps some in senior positions believe they can foresee significant barriers to civil cooperation and care for fellow man if religious motivation is removed. Opponents may claim that people have multiple concerns when choosing to do good and that it is no more correct to say that faith is the underlying factor than self preservation is, or that it is just an evolutionary misfiring that is the cause.

Religious faith, then, may be very powerful, or it may have little to no power at all alone. What cannot be denied is that it is no simple task to pin down its influence exactly, and it is not blindingly obvious that it is definitely a force either for good or for ill. Tony Blair has put his cards on the table by creating the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (TBFF), an organisation that seeks both to increase understanding of the major world religions, but also to promote religious faith as a force for the good. One of TBFF’s initiatives is the Faith and Globalisation network of which Durham is a partner. A number of Universities across the world are taking part in this initiative, including Yale and the National University of Singapore. Faith and Globalisation is concerned with a number of issues including those mentioned briefly above, but its chief concerns are with the relationships between different religious groups, between religion and culture, technology and politics. This is because, in an increasingly globalised world where different groups and cultures are pushed together, issues and questions will increasingly appear that cannot be ignored, and which have serious consequences for the future of society. Such questions may be “How exclusive can a faith be before it can no longer interact harmoniously with other groups in society?”, “Is a secular state best equipped to manage these relationships”, “What is the proper voice for religion in the public realm?”, “To what extent do globalisation processes affect religion, and to what extent can faith affect globalisation processes?”

For its part, Durham is running an MA in Faith and Globalisation, taught jointly by the School of Theology and the School of Government and International Affairs, and this has begun this Autumn. There will also be extensive research performed and events will be held involving local religious leaders, politicians, academics and students examining pertinent issues, and there is a Faith and Technology conference being held in March. So whatever your religious persuasion or point of view, even if you think the world would be better off without faith altogether, here is a chance to get involved, have your voice heard, and contribute to something that may have a major effect on humanity’s future.

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