Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good

We are delighted to present the final report from the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good.

You can access the report here, at www.woolf.cam.ac.uk or at www.corab.org.uk.

The commission has also published a selection of submissions it received during its national consultation. These can be found in the posts below.

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The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

Within two generations religion and belief have changed beyond all recognition in the UK. We are now much less religious, less Christian and more diverse that ever previously imaginable.

Public policy has, however, failed to keep pace with these transformational changes with what reforms there have been to law, education, media, politics and public dialogue being piecemeal and haphazard.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life was convened in 2013 by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge. It brought together 20 leading religious and academic thinkers to undertake a systematic consideration of the place of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and to make recommendations for public life and policy.

This website presents the commission’s final report, Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good.

It also hosts a selection of documents that were submitted to the commission in its call for evidence.

 

The Changing Landscape

Within two generations religion and belief have changed beyond all recognition in the UK. We are now much less religious, less Christian and more diverse that ever previously imaginable.

The following submissions are particularly noteworthy for their discussions of the changing landscape of religion and belief in the UK.

‘Minority religions, it seems, are tolerated as guests in the home as long as they remain polite and do not upset the host.’

Jay Ashra is an international development professional and teaches Hinduism at GCSE level. The author criticises Britain’s capitalist economy and suggests that ‘Capitalism and Religion have contrary aims’. The submission suggests that Britain ‘does not show equal respect for all religions’ because Christianity has a privileged place in public institutions and the law – ‘Where are the Hindu Lords Spiritual?’ Ashra calls for greater secularism in public institutions and ceremonies along French lines. This submission also discusses issues concerning law, media, social action and dialogue.

Download the full submission here.

‘…faith is not seen as a culturally alien force, even though the devolved government is rigorously secular’.

The Church in Wales’ submission sets out the diverse landscape in Wales in terms of religion, denomination, ethnicity and language. The authors suggest that faith communities in Wales enjoy amicable relationships with each other and that this may have been influenced by a number of factors, including the absence of an established church and a legacy of Nonconformist traditions. They also suggest that historically strong religious practice has left a legacy of good religious literacy in Wales. This submission also discusses issues concerning the media, education and faith-based social action.

Download the full submission here.

‘…religion is patently a matter of substantial indifference for the majority of people.’

David Pollock is former President of the European Humanist Federation. He sets out some conceptual approaches to ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ and provides various statistics attesting to the ‘rapid decline in the importance of religion’. He also offers some detailed discussion of legal issues and education.

Download the full submission here.

‘…it would be a fundamental mistake to link people’s sense of being British to Christianity.’

Mohammed Amin suggests that there needs to be a form of national identity that appeals to all citizens irrespective of their religion or belief. He suggests that state ceremonies should reflect the diversity of religious and belief traditions in the UK relative to their size. He argues that many Muslims have incorrectly seen anti-terrorism legislation as discriminatory, rather than necessary.

Download the full submission here.

Education

Debates about the roles of religion and belief in contemporary public life often centre around their place in institutions like schools. The commission’s consultation received a vast number of responses on issues to do with RE, collective worship in schools and schools with a religious character.

The following submissions are particularly noteworthy for their discussions of religion and belief in the context of education.

‘A particularly pressing need is for the recognition of an urgent increase and improvement in the quantity and quality of training for those who will be teaching RE’.

This response from the RE Council of England and Wales notes that there is considerable variation in the quality of RE as currently delivered. It argues that there has been neglect of RE in the training of teachers. The authors call for a review of the legal basis on which SACREs and Agreed Syllabus Conferences are set up, though they note divisions among their member organisations concerning the adequacy of the current system. The submission emphasises the need for greater religious and belief literacy throughout in society.

Download the full submission here.

‘Those that belong to certain faith communities have more choice of schools, but those that don’t are finding they have an increasingly limited choice of school.’ 

This response to our consultation is from a humanist parent living in London. The author is concerned about the lack of coverage of non-religious worldviews in some locally agreed RE syllabuses. She also believes that schools with a religious character should not be permitted to select pupils on grounds of religion.

Download the full submission here.

‘The trouble is everyone wants their religion or belief represented in the syllabus, often at each key stage and this has been encouraged by government over time.’

This submission sets out the legal framework for RE in England. It discusses developments in one local authority’s Agreed Syllabus Conference and SACRE, and issues such as the inclusion of non-religious worldviews and beliefs in RE.

Download the full submission here.

‘…religion [is] a form of practice or as a way of life. This involves a ‘knowing how’ as much as a ‘knowing that’.

This submission is from the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, a Sikh organisation. The authors celebrate the current localised nature of RE syllabuses and call for the centralisation of RE to be resisted. They argue that RE needs to involve a ‘knowing how’ as much as a ‘knowing that’ – a practical appreciation of religious life as much as a theoretical understanding. The authors suggest this practical understanding could be gained through placements with faith-based social action organisations. They also suggest the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in RE should be resisted. This submission also makes extensive points related to law and social action.

Download the full submission here.

‘There is a strong tendency to see religious schools through rose-tinted spectacles.’

David Pollock is former President of the European Humanist Federation. He argues that many religious groups are seeking to open schools so as to propagate their own beliefs at public expense. He challenges state funding of religious schools and argues that they are socially divisive. He also discusses issues in RE and challenges the legal requirement for collective worship in schools. The author also offers some detailed discussion of social change and legal issues.

Download the full submission here.

Media

Almost all responses to the commission’s consultation expressed concern about the portrayal of religion and belief in the mainstream media.

The following submissions are particularly noteworthy for their discussions of religion and belief in the UK in the context of media.

‘Muslims are homogenised and represented through a small range of negative topics – terrorism, extremism, conflict, separatism and cultural difference/clash.’

Elizabeth Poole is a specialist on Muslims and the media in Britain. Her submission argues that there are serious deficiencies in media coverage and representations of the major religions in the UK. She makes some recommendations for tackling these issues and for improving the public’s religious and belief literacy.

Download the full submission here.

‘The difficulty is that the role of religion both abroad and in this country is perceived by the mainstream media as akin to the reporting of politics: it’s essentially about conflicts’.

Catherine Pepinster is Editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet. She argues that there is a lack of knowledge about the basics of religion and belief among media professionals, and that mainstream media outlets tend to perceive the roles of religion and belief in terms of conflicts. The author also discusses how developments in media, including social media, in recent years have reshaped people’s experiences of religion and belief.

Download the full submission here.

‘How would you feel about being called a “moderate Christian”?’

The Church in Wales’ submission argues that mainstream media outlets tend to associate religion with conservative morality, and that editors tend to be interested in religion and belief only when there is something negative to report. The authors emphasise concerns over unhelpful or careless use of religious labels. They suggest that the Church in Wales receives more media scrutiny than other Christian denominations in Wales, in part because of a perception that it is the established church, despite its disestablished status in reality. This submission also discusses social change and issues concerning education and faith-based social action.

Download the full submission here.

‘Journalists and those who ‘make programmes’ about religious communities and religious affairs need to understand their role as mediators of ‘truths’ about those they speak and write about.’

This submission has been prepared by Jo Backus on behalf of the Network of Buddhist Organisations. The author notes that many media representations of religion and belief do not take account of internal differences within a particular tradition. She argues that Buddhism in mainstream media is mostly represented by white converts. She emphasises that media plays an important role in educating the public about religion and belief, and that more positive coverage of religion and spirituality in mainstream media is needed. This submission also discusses social change, law, education, social action and dialogue.

Download the full submission here.

Dialogue

Processes of constructive engagement and dialogue between people holding different beliefs and worldviews, and belonging to different traditions and backgrounds, have vital roles to play in the task of strengthening the bonds of community.

The following submissions are particularly noteworthy for their discussions of religion and belief in the UK in the context of dialogue.

‘A willingness to learn about others faiths and put aside prejudice (e.g. from the media) was central to dialogue and engagement and that this stems from the twin desire to be understood and to understand others.

This submission emerged from a meeting organised by an interfaith organisation in Scotland. The authors set out what they see as the principles underlying effective dialogue. They highlight concerns that people who engage in interreligious dialogue are a minority in their own communities, and that more work is needed to engage the majority of religion and belief communities in such dialogue. They emphasise the role that schools can play in this regard and call for greater training of religion and belief leaders in interreligious dialogue.

Download the full submission here.

‘In my research it was clear that commitment to a neighbourhood and a community, belonging, was important to those who were actively involved in their local community and in dialogue’.

This response was submitted by an academic who specialises in researching interreligious dialogue. The author sets out criteria by which different organisations may measure the efficacy of dialogue. She draws a distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ dialogue and emphasises the importance of the latter in creating cohesive neighbourhoods. She suggests that interreligious dialogue bodies can be seen as ‘means of validating religions in public – approving religions through allowing their membership’.

Download the full submission here.

‘There is a sense of frustration by some involved in dialogue work that it can be too agreeable, and not challenging enough.’

The Humanist Society Scotland suggests that there is ‘no clear desire’ from Scottish humanists to see formal involvement in interfaith work – partly because of use of ‘faith’ as a descriptor of these activities. The HSS highlights a number of issues, including a sense of unfairness among humanists about their exclusion from government funding for interfaith/belief work, and the danger that dialogue can be ‘too agreeable’ and not challenging enough.

Download the full submission here.

‘…effective dialogue between people of faith and no faith must be underpinned by the need to understand and appreciate difference.’

This submission from the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme argues that worldwide religion ‘has not been swept away in the great tide of secularism’ but in the UK there is a lack of religious and belief literacy needed to understand the global situation. The authors suggest that interreligious dialogue programmes should draw on existing local networks to identify local decision-makers, and should offer them quality leadership training. They advocate greater national policy focus on the capacity of religious groups to work for peace rather than violence. They discuss how Scriptural Reasoning may be used in interfaith dialogue. This submission also discusses issues of education and media.

Download the full submission here.

‘The structures and processes for inter dialogue and engagement need continually to evolve to reflect the religious and social landscape – including changing methods of communication – and to meet changing needs.’

The Trustees for the Inter Faith Network UK gives an expansive and detailed look into the role and challenges of inter faith work in the UK today. Specifically regarding dialogue, the submission explains how inter faith work addresses the evolving needs of communities and tackling tensions through dialogue and education but warns of “over-expectation” and the tendency for inter faith organisations to be a “one stop shop”for all dialogue and conflict mediation. The submission also gives a unique insight into resourcing for inter faith initiatives and opportunities.

Download the full submission here.

Social Action

Religion- and belief-based organisations can make an important contribution to social action and services provision, not least because of their capacity and motivation to address local need. There are, however, some issues about their work that are the source of debate.

The following submissions are particularly noteworthy for their discussions of religion and belief in the context of social action.

‘…it is our faith and the beliefs we hold that drive us to engage with the world around us and to seek the welfare of our neighbours.’

The Church Urban Fund argues that faith-based social action needs to be valued and invested in by the government. It argues that contributions of faith-based organisations include that their work is ‘often more relationally based’ than with other organisations, and that they create spaces for long-term relationships to grow. The Fund suggests that local authorities are becoming more willing to partner with faith-based organisations after a period of mistrust.

Download the full submission here.

‘Faith-based providers are often overlooked due to local authorities’ fears that they might discriminate or proselytise to service users.’

This submission is from the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, a Sikh organisation. The authors argue that faith-based organisations act as ‘community anchor organisations’ and serve a range of local needs. They set out some of the advantages and disadvantages of social provision by FBOs. They also suggest that FBOs face difficulties when bidding for contracts with local authorities because of concerns that the FBOs are motivated by a desire to proselytise. This submission also makes extensive points related to law and education.

Download the full submission here.

‘The UK Government needs to ensure it does a quality and correct stakeholder analysis. Consulting with the wrong stakeholder can be catastrophic, causing conflict and creating distrust.’

Jay Ashra is an international development professional and teaches Hinduism at GCSE level. Ashra suggests that governments are failing to identify and fund truly representative Hindu organisations. The submission argues that many faith-based social action organisations aim to proselytise, and that they should instead ensure that their work is done in a ‘secular manner’, without attempting to convert people they seek to help. This submission also discusses social change and issues concerning law, media and dialogue.

Download the full submission here.

‘Faith-based organisations are facing increasing demand for vital social services. At the same time, however, they are seeing their funding come under threat as a result of equality legislation.’

This submission is from the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs, which advises the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland on social, legal and political issues. It discusses the challenges posed to some publicly-funded Catholic agencies by changes in equalities legislation, over issues such as same-sex marriages. It argues that faith-based organisations are facing threats to their public funding because of these legal issues.

Download the full submission here.

 

Law

In recent years equality legislation has expanded to deal with religion or belief. The Human Rights Act 1998 introduced a positive right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The Equality Act 2010, applying to England, Scotland and Wales, prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in the same way that it does for characteristics such as age, disability, gender, race and sexual orientation. Case law in relation to these acts has added further definition to the rights and duties which they
entail.

The following submissions are particularly noteworthy for their discussions of religion and belief in the context of law.

‘If we are all equal, the freedom of religion and conscience of each of us is due equal respect whether it is religious in nature or not.’

Ronan McCrea is a lawyer and a specialist on the relationship between religion and law in liberal democracies. He argues that the expansion of the jurisdiction of religious tribunals should not be encouraged, and that a religion-specific exemption from anti-discrimination law is unjustifiable.

Download the full submission here.

‘The law may legitimately protect individual believers from persecution or from incitement of hatred but their beliefs as such must never be protected from the mockery or robust criticism that are part of the essentials of a free society.’

David Pollock is former President of the European Humanist Federation. His submission argues that secularism is ‘the best possible guarantor’ of freedom of religion or belief for all. He discusses equality legislation’s exemptions relating to religion or belief, for example in relation to employment practices. He discusses issues of discrimination and reasonable accommodation of religion or belief in the workplace. The author also offers some detailed discussion of social change and educational issues.

Download the full submission here.

‘The growth of litigation… together with an increase in legislation and a growing understanding of religious rights (under civil law), has led to the ‘juridification of religion’.’

Frank Cranmer, Norman Doe, David Harte and Russell Sandberg are members of the Centre for Law and Religion at Cardiff University. The authors caution that implying that values like equality and the rule of law are distinctively ‘British’ could estrange some members of minority communities. They set out recent developments in law pertaining to religion or belief matters and identify a number of concerns, such as confusion among the general public about the implication of anti-discrimination legislation for religion and belief groups. They discuss research on minority religious courts and suggest that these tribunals do not seek to undermine civil law and that they provide a ‘valuable service’ for their adherents.

Download the full submission here.

‘Religion and belief should not affect the forming of laws, nor the enforcement of laws. In fact, religious beliefs should be irrelevant to the law, which should purely be based and applied on humanitarian grounds.’

This submission is from a non-religious and secularist perspective. Particularly noteworthy are the author’s comments on legal issues, including the place of religious minority legal tribunals in the UK. This submission also discusses social change and issues in education, media and social action.

Download the full submission here.