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.