Faith by numbers: why religion still matters

A global poll emphasises the central and growing importance of religion to world society.

In the latest edition of IPSOS MORI's research journal, Understanding Society, Tony Blair talks about the central and growing importance of religion to global society.

The reasoning is compelling. In a world that may seem increasingly secular to many of us, it is easy to forget that religious belief is a central part of life for hundreds of millions of people. MORI's study in 24 countries showed that 69 per cent say they have a religion -- and of these, 40 per cent say it is very important to them.

And the importance of religion does not exist separately from other spheres of life -- it often has a direct impact on social, political and economic issues. For example, our recent election polling in Nigeria (which correctly predicted a comfortable victory for Goodluck Jonathan) showed that voting patterns very clearly followed religious lines. That's not to say religion was the only, or even the main, driver of the result -- but this strong link between faith and political outcomes is seen across a number of countries.

But the importance of faith is not just an issue for the present -- it seems set to become even more important in the future. It is trite to say that the world is going to look very different in 30 years -- but the scale of change and the importance of faith to understanding some key elements of this are difficult to overstate.

The growth of developing countries will change the social, political and economic landscape entirely -- and many of these emergent economies have faith as an important part of life. This doesn't just mean India -- for example, in Brazil 84 per cent say they have a religion, and 97 per cent of these say it is important to them. And as Blair also points out, the economic potential of Africa over the coming decades is huge, and in many African countries faith is much more central to social and political life.

We are also going to see significant shifts in the religious profile of the world with, for example, the Muslim population growing at twice the rate of non-Muslims and projected to make up over a quarter of the global population within the next 20 years.

The growing importance of religious understanding will not just result from the rebalancing of the world economy and changing population sizes -- we are also going to see greater contact between people of different faiths. Globalisation will continue to increase the interconnectedness of business and societies. There is also a high probability that political crises and climate change are going to mix populations even more. With all these forces at play, it will be vital for us all to increase our religious literacy and acceptance.

But when we look at current attitudes to religion, they demonstrate how conflicted we are globally. For example, a poll MORI conducted in 24 countries ahead of the Munk Debate between Mr Blair and Christoper Hitchens at the end of 2010 showed an almost perfect split in views on religion: 48 per cent believe that religion provides the common values and ethical foundation that diverse societies need in the 21st Century -- and 52 per cent that religious beliefs promote intolerance and exacerbate divisions.

The significant suspicion that religion arouses is seen in a number of studies. For example, the World Values Survey asked people across 55 countries who they would least like as a neighbour. The top answer, by some distance, was drug addicts -- but still one in five people said they would not like to be neighbours with someone from a different religion, twice the proportion that picked out people with a criminal record.

Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by this as religion, by its nature, does bring certain types of division. In our most recent polling we asked whether people think their faith is the only path to salvation -- and a quarter of all those with religious beliefs agreed, rising to around 60 per cent in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. While this does not necessarily lead to separation, it does require serious consideration: how can people with religiously exclusive beliefs co-exist peacefully within politically pluralist societies? In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, this is not a theoretical question but an urgent one

But on the other side is religion's practical force for good. Around three in ten of the population across the 24 countries say that religion is an important motivator in their giving of time or money to those in need. This echoes the work of the Harvard academic Robert Putnam and colleagues, which shows that the religious in the US are three to four times more likely to be civically engaged, and that this is not just in supporting religious causes but secular ones too. The driving force for this turns out not to be faith in itself, but being part of a community. It is no wonder then that, in the UK, where the government is trying to create a "Big Society" of people taking more responsibility for looking after themselves and others, the potential religion provides has created a lot of interest among politicians and policy-makers.

However, our survey highlights how much this positive impact of religion varies across countries, as the range of those saying religion encourages them to give their time or money runs from 11 per cent in Sweden and 12 per cent in France to 84 per cent in Indonesia. As with many aspects of religion, the variety and complexity of local contexts is extraordinary.

This points to the biggest challenge, how to increase understanding across different faith groups, and this is one of the key areas where the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is focusing, including working with young people, schools and universities to increase interaction and positive activity. The scale of the task is daunting -- there are no issues with more entrenched positions than religion -- but one of the few things that those on different sides of the debate agree on is that religion itself is not going away any time.

 

Bobby Duffy is the Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute (SRI). Ruth Turner is the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.