It’s great that the Government are asking questions about faith and religion -but are they asking the right ones?

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The Government have appointed Colin Bloom as an independent faith advisor.  As part of his work, a survey has been commissioned to gather perspectives on faith, belief and religion in the UK today.  It asks a whole range of questions including some about whether we think religion has a positive impact on society or not and also about the Government’s own literacy in terms of faith (as well as other institutions).

My personal view is that the Government’s “faith literacy” is poor.  I think this has come across during COVID-19 in terms of how the authorities have interacted with churches over the lockdown regulations.  The initial return to public gathering after lockdown was marked out by a focus on short, public rituals and ceremonies which missed the importance of communal fellowship in our worship reflecting a limited high church understanding of religion. The failure to recognise the COVID compliance of places of worship and the apparent reversal of a commitment not to impose church closures unless really necessary for Lockdown 2 has further served to undermine relationships between Church and State.

My concern about the Government’s literacy in this area has been further raised by a number of questions posed in the survey. So I thought I would run through a few of them here and share my thoughts.

“In your opinion, are Faith and Religion overall positive things for society?”

The survey starts with questions about my perception of faith and religion. However, notice that I am being asked to answer something rather vague here. Is religion a positive thing? Well that depends. You see when we talk about religion, we are covering everything from all the major faiths including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism through to minority cults and paganism. We are also including some of the variations and extremes within the religions.

Now, as a Christian, I believe that there is one true living God and scripture asks me to believe that worship of any other gods is idolatry. So, when I look at other religions, I am looking at such a refusal to worship the Lord and put your trust in Christ.  Therefore, theologically I have to truthfully answer that no, faith and religion are not necessary positive things for society. Worship of false gods is dangerous.

You see (and I’m sure people answering from other religions will want to argue the same), my answer requires a greater level of specificity. I don’t think that religion overall is a positive thing for society. I do think that Christian faith is. This is first sand foremost because our true purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him and because the greatest need that people in England have is to know Christ as Lord and Saviour. Furthermore, over the centuries we have seen the positive influence of the Christian Faith on our society, shaping our laws and reforming our ethics. Today and throughout Coronavirus, the Church has continued to have a positive influence including helping to keep a sense of community going through online output as well as helping in a variety of practical ways especially with food. 

We also often have what I consider a positive influence but which in fact puts us at odds with the Government and establishment.  We might argue that the very things we see as positives for society are things the establishment considers negative. For example, in this last few years two major issues I’ve spoken up on as a church leader are asylum and abortion.  In the former case I have actively supported asylum claimants that this Government wished to see returned to their country of origin.  The previous Prime Minister and former Home Secretary, Theresa May was committed to a society where there was a hostile environment for immigrants. The Church has certainly not been supportive of that vision for society.  Similarly, the establishment is committed to a liberal agenda on abortion, same-sex marriage, easy divorce and many other issues we would disagree on. We cannot talk about influence for good in society without discussing what our philosophy of a good society is.

So, correctly speaking I want to say that Christianity has a positive affect on society but that this positive affect will bring us at times into conflict with the Government. Therefore, we cannot ask the question “does faith have a positive affect” without asking the same question o Government and other institutions.

How do you define Religion?

This is the definition being proposed:

“Religion is a particular and organised system of faith and worship in a supreme being or entity or supreme beings or entities. Someone can be born into a religious tradition, they can follow a religion, belong to a religion and they can even be religious in their lifestyle choices. Typically, religions will have places of worship such as Churches, Temples, Mosques and Synagogues, and will often have a national and international hierarchy. In almost every case, the world’s major religions will have a creed, Holy Scriptures and other ancient texts.”

Now, most of this is fairly reasonable,  however there are a couple of changes I would like to see made.  First of all, take the line:

Someone can be born into a religious tradition, they can follow a religion, belong to a religion and they can even be religious in their lifestyle choices.

This is fine in terms of what it does say. However, for me, the concern is in what it doesn’t say.  There is no explicit statement about a person choosing a religion and particularly choosing to leave or change religion. This is important because a number of countries around the world claim to be tolerant of religion but also put restrictions in place against proselytization and conversion. Yet, these two related things are essential to freedom of religion.

Secondly, notice the focus on religion as organised and the importance of hierarchies.  I recognise that the definition gives some room for manoeuvre with the use of words and phrases such as “often” and “in almost every case” but the dominant assumption is that religion is hierarchical. If that is the dominant perception then that will undermine the place of dissenting religious groups and restrict engagement with the many religious communities that do not function in this hierarchical manner. It may lead to a faulty perception that a few national leaders are definitely representative of, speak for and are able to control the decisions of those in their faith community.

“Is there anything about your faith community that you want to see faith leaders or the Government tackle?”

This came in the context of a set of questions asking about whether we have concerns about any aspects of faith and religion in the country.  Well, I have to answer yes to that. I’m concerned about the propagation of false belief and I would be unhappy about the negative affect of some beliefs and practices (for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses position on blood transfusions).  Does that mean I want the Government getting involved and tackling things?  Most certainly not. After all, some atheist respondent might well be answering yes to this question meaning they want to see the Government be more proactive in eliminating and eradicating what they consider to be superstitious nonsense.

This is not to say that I think people can get away with doing what they want when it puts others at risk. Rather, the best protection against such dangers in the rule of law and ensuring that crime is dealt with. It is not about the Government getting involved in religious life.

Conclusion

I am encouraged that the Government are asking questions -even if they need to do some work on their questions. However, we have been here before and in the end, they need to remember that as secular leaders, they are not neutral but have their own faith based ideology. The reality is that the Government are unlikely to change their position soon on asylum, marriage or abortion.  Consultations with faith leaders that don’t address those issues are the spiritual equivalent of seeing a deep wound and sticking a plaster over it.

I hope plenty of people will respond. If you do, please use the comments sections to fill out and clarify your views. The survey indicates at the end that there may be some follow up with people who answered the survey to clarify and learn more. I hope that happens.

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