A spirituality to suit the times

Paul Harrison wraps up his four-part series by explaining the complementary relationship between Pan

One of the strongest attractions of Pantheism for me is that it seems perfectly attuned for our times. We are living in world where scripture-driven fundamentalists from the three Western monotheisms are threatening international security and peace. A world where human neglect of nature and the environment has reached the point where it threatens all our livelihoods and lives.

What we need at this time is a spirituality of Nature and environment. This current is growing in all religions, as they re-interpret their core writings in line with the needs of our crisis. But Pantheism, from square one, places Nature at their very centre.

We need a spirituality that is not afraid of science, that doesn’t seek to deny science, nor to gradually withdraw into a hidden corner of untestable claims that can’t be investigated. Pantheism is possibly the only spiritual path that fully embraces science and the scientific method (that doesn’t mean we embrace all the technological products of science). It’s also possibly the only path that is utterly at home in space, in the Universe revealed by the Hubble telescope.

There’s no doubt that the numbers of self-described Pantheists is growing – we recently counted more than 10,000 separate members on WPM and related email lists. There’s also a vast number of “Pantheists who don’t know it yet” - people who don’t believe in supernatural beings but who do revere Nature.

The prospects for Pantheism as an organized religion are less certain. The World Pantheist Movement has made the strongest shot at it so far, but it is not easy to encourage people to form local groups. One reason is that Pantheists are non-conformist by nature, and many have been turned off all organized religion by bad experiences with traditional religions. Pantheists also tend to be secure in their beliefs – we believe in what’s in front of our eyes, and we don’t need the confirmation of group gatherings to reassure us that our beliefs are not crazy. Nor does our “salvation” or peace of mind depend on recruiting others to our beliefs.

If you simply revere Nature and the wider Universe, then there is no one correct way: ceremony is a matter of personal expressions and taste. So Pantheists vary widely in their interest in ceremony, and differ over what to do when they do meet. In a large survey, we found that 14% of Pantheists dislike ceremony and avoid it. At the other extreme 15% enjoy rituals such as dressing up, group chanting, or symbolic “props.” The rest of us are somewhere in the middle, not uncomfortable with group meditation or using natural objects for contemplation.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.