Face to Faiths

How do we maintain a cohesive society with increasingly few shared beliefs and assumptions?

Today sees the last in the series of Westminster Faith Debates, which have been going on since February at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall. Organised by Lancaster University and the think-tank Theos and chaired by Charles Clarke, the former cabinet minister, the sessions have explored various aspects of the intersection of religion and politics, from the place of religious education in schools to the highly controversial role of faith-based initiatives in plugging the increasingly obvious holes in the welfare system.

The debates have brought together social scientists with politicians, media pundits and religious leaders.  Speakers have included Trevor Phillips, Richard Dawkins, Rabbi Julia Neuberger and the New Statesman's own Mehdi Hasan.  Elizabeth Hunter, the director of Theos, told me that for her the best element of the series has been the breadth of the audience.  "We've filled the room with committed, interested people of all faiths and no faith," she says.  "It's been unusually diverse and engaged, which has meant the Q and As have been lively and often challenging."

Hunter singled out last month's debate on religious freedom, which featured  Michael Nazir Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, and Lisa Appignanesi among others, as her own personal highlight:  "We had a real range of opinions on the panel, and indeed in the audience, but the discussion was serious, not consensual, but civil. So many people said to be afterwards that it was the best thing they've seen on the subject. Most of the public conversation about religious freedom and equality descends into tribal mudslinging and this was very different."

The debates were certainly well-timed.  The first four months of the year have witnessed an extraordinary cranking-up of tension, at least in terms of the public debate around religion and society.  The tone was set during that remarkable week in February when Baroness Warsi went to the Vatican to warn the Pope about militant secularism while Richard Dawkins, highlighting research that suggested declining religious literacy even among professed believers, memorably fluffed a challenge from Dr Giles Fraser to recall the full title of The Origin of Species

This past week has seen more of the same, with the British Humanist Association extending its campaign against faith schools and Catholic educators under fire for (as they see it) defending the traditional understanding of marriage.  In between we've had rows about proposed "gay cure" bus adverts, the legality of council prayers  and the future of the bishops in a reformed House of Lords.

Why is all this happening now? It's common to date the current, fevered debate on the place of faith in modern Britain to the fallout from 9/11 or, beyond that, to the Rushdie affair of the late 1980s.  But both those traumatic events are beginning to recede into history.  Both "offence" and terrorism remain big, unresolved issues but the focus today is less dramatic and more fundamental: it's about how to maintain a cohesive society with increasingly few shared beliefs and assumptions.

The first Westminster debate, back in February, raised the issue of "superdiversity" which goes to the heart of the issue.  Under the principle of "diversity", which forms the basis of much recent legislation (notably the 2010 Equality Act) people claim rights as members of communities, whether defined by reference to their ethnicity, their sexuality, their physical capacity or their religious adherence. 

This makes things nice and simple for lawmakers and the courts, even if it gives endless scope for litigation and encourages something of a grievance culture.  But it's a blunt instrument, and outdated even as the ink was drying on the last piece of legislation.  People have multiple identities, which change through life and may find themselves in tension even within the same individual.  Religion is one way in which people define themselves.  For some it is of supreme importance, for others it's peripheral, or others still it is (as the Facebook status offers) "complicated."  One size does not fit all.  Everyone is, to some extent, their own "community".

In her presentation tonight on the subject of current trends, Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University (who has been leading the debates) will argue that what we call religion has changed dramatically in recent years.  Whereas it was once bound up with local and national community it has become something individual and individually chosen.  It's no longer "a matter of belonging to a clerically-led community, affirming unchanging dogma and holding conservative social attitudes".  Claims by "male leaders to represent religious communities are more tenuous than before."  It's all about "associating with like-minded people through real or virtual networks". 

Yet if religious diversity is just another manifestation of modern capitalist consumerism, as such a view would imply, why does it remain so politically, and personally, charged?  And take the ultimate hierarchical, clerically-led and dogma-affirming religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  Under pressure it might be, but it is precisely those features that Woodhead singles out as problematic that self-identifying (rather than merely cultural) Catholics find most attractive and that are growing.  There has recently been a small increase in the number of women training to be nuns, for example, and younger nuns are more likely to join traditional, habit-wearing convents than the more liberal orders whose American leaders have recently annoyed the Vatican.

What I would want to say, contrary to Woodhead's rather optimistic conclusions, is that religion has very little to do with personal spirituality, although it has traditionally been the main vehicle through which personal spirituality is expressed.  Far more central, historically, has been its role as a mechanism of group cohesion, as a social glue and as a source of communal morality.  That's why it has always been closely involved with politics, and perhaps why the decline of formal religious observance has coincided with a similar decline in membership of political parties, voting and faith in the political process as a whole. 

In religion as in politics, what is left when most ordinary people get bored is a hard core of committed and slightly obsessive activists -- moderates as well as extremists, by the way, scoffers as well as true believers.  When the enthusiasts on all sides no longer represent a social consensus or a mass activity, the debates get more, not less, heated.

Nevertheless, as Hunter says, religion still is and will continue to be central to many people's lives. "If we don't engage and understand it, if we're not willing to really listen and have serious conversations about how we live together well then we're all in trouble."  Recent months have demonstrated that beyond all doubt.

Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, debated religious freedom as part of the Westminster Faith Debates. Photograph: Getty Images.
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.