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.
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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman