Donotdiscount thepowerof faith
Religion has a special role to play in a globalised world, says the former prime minister
LET ME SUMMARISE my argument to you. Under the momentum of globalisation the world is opening up, and at an astonishing speed. Old boundaries of culture, identity and even nationhood are falling. The 21st century world is becoming ever more interdependent. In this world, religious faith, crucial to so many people’s culture and identity, can play a positive or a negative role. Either positively it will encourage peaceful co-existence by people of faith coming together in respect, understanding and tolerance, retaining their distinctive identity but living happily with those who do not share that identity. Or it will work against such co-existence by defining people by difference, those of one faith in opposition to others of a different faith.
In this context, interfaith action and encounter are vital. They symbolise peaceful co-existence.
That is my primary argument. It is directed to people who have religious faith and those who have none.
However, I will go further and argue that religious faith is a good thing in itself. Far from being a reactionary force, it has a major part to play in shaping the values which guide the modern world, and can and should be a force for progress. But it has to be rescued on the one hand from the extremist and exclusionary tendency within religion today; and on the other from the danger that religious faith is seen as an interesting part of history and tradition but with nothing to say about the contemporary human condition. I see faith and reason, faith and progress, as in alliance, not contention.
One of the oddest questions I get asked in interviews (and I get asked a lot of odd questions) is: is faith important to your politics? It is like asking someone whether their health is important to them or their family. If you are someone “of faith”, it is the focal point of belief in your life. There is no conceivable way that it wouldn’t affect your politics.
But there is a reason why my former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, once famously said: “We don’t do God”. In our culture, here in Britain and in many other parts of Europe, to admit to having faith leads to a whole series of suppositions, none of which are very helpful to the practising politician.
First, you may be considered weird. Normal people aren’t supposed to “do God”.
Second, there is an assumption that before you take a decision, you engage in some slightly cultish interaction with your religion — “So, God, tell me what you think of City Academies or Health Service Reform or nuclear power” — ie people assume that your religion makes you act, as a leader, at the promptings of an inscrutable deity, free from reason rather than in accordance with it.
Third, you want to impose your religious faith on others.
Fourth, you are pretending to be better than the next person.
And finally and worst of all, that you are somehow messianically trying to co-opt God to bestow a divine legitimacy on your politics.
So when Alastair said it, he didn’t mean politicians shouldn’t have faith; just that it was always a packet of trouble to talk about it.
And underlying it all, certainly, is the notion that religion is divisive, irrational and harmful. That is why for years, it was assumed that as humanity progressed intellectually and matured morally, so religion would decline.
Even 10 years ago, religion was still being written off as a force in the world. For over 200 years, the view had grown that advanced men and women no longer needed religion. It was a view rooted in the new thinking of the Enlightenment. It was a view reinforced by scientific discoveries which challenged traditional religious understandings of the nature of the world. A view underpinned by a belief in the inevitable progress of all humankind, but especially those branches of humankind who happened to live in the West. It was a view which increasingly confined religion to the private sphere. And it was a view which lasted a long time. As late as 2000, the Economist magazine published the so-called obituary of God in its millennium issue.
But in fact at no time since the Enlightenment has religion ever gone away. It has always been at the very core of life for millions of people, the foundation of their existence, the motive for their behaviour, the thing which gives sense to their lives and purpose to their journeys — which makes life more than just a sparrow’s flight through a lighted hall from one darkness to another, in that memorable image of the Venerable Bede. In the last few years we have been reminded of the great power of religion.
We have seen its great power for good, for example in the Jubilee campaign, that great mass movement which did so much to help the poor of the world.
And in the last 10 years we have also been sharply reminded, in acts of terror committed in the name of faith, that we ignore the power of religion at our peril.
But let us also recall for a moment the evils of the 20th century done in the furtherance of political ideology; fascism and the Holocaust; communism and the millions of Stalin’s victims. And recall how the heroic defiance of those evils was often led by men and women of faith.
Add to that the rich tradition of religion as a force for good in history.
Only last year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Of course we need to remember that plenty of people of belief willingly engaged in the slave trade and enjoyed its profits. But we also need to recall that many of the leaders of the abolition movement came from the evangelical Clapham sect or the Society of Friends. We need to recall the role of Christian and Jewish groups in instigating the Genocide Convention in 1948.
We can think of the great humanitarian enterprises which bring relief to those who are suffering — the Red Cross, the Red Crescent or Islamic Relief, Cafod and Christian Aid, Hindu Aid and Sewa International, World Jewish Relief and Khalsa Aid — all the charities which draw inspiration from the teachings of the different faiths.
And of course all these bodies draw on the traditions which the great world faiths have of social justice — the moral imperative of helping the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, the weak and the powerless.
Think of Gandhi; of the radical and brave liberation priests of South America; of those that spoke out in the time of apartheid; of those that in their thousands and hundreds of thousands work in the poorest, most disease-ridden, conflict ravaged parts of Africa this day and every day.
Think of women religious fighting the trafficking of women and children around the world.
And in the West, for example, we owe an incalculable debt to the Judaeo-Christian tradition in terms of our concepts of human worth and dignity, law and democracy.
Reflect on the work done by churches, mosques, synagogues and temples in care for the sick or the elderly or the socially excluded.
Such work is selfless, often unremarked upon in society, often dramatic in lifting individual human anguish and suffering.
For all these actors faith is not something incidental to their actions. It is the wellspring of them, the font, the origin, the thing that makes these people who they are and do what they do.
To them their faith is realised in action: in commitment to others; in caring; in compassion; in an all-embracing feeling of solidarity. They believe they act as instruments of God’s love when they perform such actions.
But enacted love of neighbour is one aspect only of what people think the faith communities represent. Religion can present two other faces to the world. One face is that of religion as extremism. There is no point in ducking this issue. Religious faith can give rise to extremism. It is most obviously associated with extremism in the name of Islam through the activities of al Qaida and others. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Even if by far most religious people are not prone to the use of terror, at least not nowadays, there are extremists in virtually every religion. And even where there is not extremism expressed in vio- lence there is extremism expressed in the idea that a person’s identity is to be found not merely in their religious faith, but in their faith as a means of excluding the other person who does not share it.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that it is extreme to believe your religious faith is the only true faith. Most people of faith do that. It doesn’t stop them respecting those of a different faith or indeed of no faith. We should respect humanists too and celebrate the good actions they do.
Faith is problematic when it becomes a way of denigrating those who do not share it, as somehow lesser human beings. Faith as a means of exclusion. God in this connection becomes not universal but partisan, faith not a means of reaching out in friendship but a means of creating or defining enemies. Miroslav Volf in his book Exclusion and Embrace describes the difference brilliantly.
When those who are not of faith see such a face presented as religion, they turn away from it, understandably repelled.
An adjunct to such a form of religious faith is a refusal to countenance scientific discovery if it appears inconvenient to an aspect of organised religion. After what happened to Galileo, it is easy to see why some later scientists tended to think religious belief and scientific endeavour could not co-exist.
Yet for most people of faith, religious belief is quintessentially about truth. So, science and faith, reason and faith should never be seen as opposites but as bedfellows. Sometimes, as with those whose faith led them to denounce the false science around race and genetics, it is faith that can lead science. The seeking after knowledge is a powerful motor force in many faiths, not least in the Koran where people are exhorted to acquire knowledge, something which for centuries put Islamic countries, not Christian ones, at the forefront of scientific advance.
Now, you may say, this is all very well. If you are of religious faith, all this may be of interest to you. But if not: Why should I care? So, there are these competing strands of vision about faith in the modern world. So what? Why does it matter in the world beyond the faith communities? The answer is this: Accept the premise that faith is not in decline. It isn’t disappearing inevitably under the weight of scientific and technological progress. It is still here with us, not just surviving but thriving.
In an era of globalisation, of political interdependence, where the world is ever more swiftly opening up and the cliché about a global community becomes an economic, political and often social reality; in this new world, how religious faith develops will have a profound impact.
The forces shaping the world at this moment are so strong and all tend in one direction. They are opening the world up. I sometimes say to people that in modern politics, the dividing line is often less between traditional left vs right; but more about open vs closed.
Mass migration is changing communities, even countries. People communicate ideas and images instantly around the world, creating immediate political and ideological movements in a ferment of quickly devoured information. Economically, the world system is ever more dependent on confidence, robust when things seem good, extraordinarily brittle when confidence dips. The world is interdependent today, economically, politically, even to a degree ideologically.
The divide, then, is between those who see this as positive — the opening up offering opportunity; and those who see it as threatening and wish to close it back down.
As you can see from the presidential race in the US, there are new questions that cross traditional party lines: free trade vs protection; engagement in foreign policy or isolationism; supporting immigration or opposing it. In these, the issue is less left vs right but open vs closed. And they all derive from a fear that globalisation is throwing people, cultures, countries together but with no common sense of values or understanding of each other. The landmark Gallup Poll, being taken world-wide, demonstrates the huge centrality of inter-cultural sensitivity as to how globalisation is perceived.
It is in this context that the role of faith is especially important, not least because most religions were global, even before political and economic systems were. If people of faith reach out to one another, learn to co-exist, believe in respecting “the other”, they can play an important part in reducing fear and tension, being proud of their own distinctive religious, and often cultural identity, but open and in amity towards those of a different religion. Alternatively, religious faith could be used to bolster, to promote, to intensify the very clash of civilisations we seek to avoid.
This is why it matters to those of different faiths and those of none, to have a powerful interfaith encounter, precisely because such an encounter symbolises and enacts a world of co-existence, not exclusion. This essay is excerpted from Tony Blair’s speech ‘Faith and Globalisation’, delivered last Thursday at Westminster Cathedral