Sometimes being on the outside of a situation gives us a better perspective; there can be real wisdom in hearing alternative voices and gaining insight. But when an outside philosophy or world-view is imposed by one group on another without any semblance of adaptation or integration, then that external perspective would be better termed ‘prejudice’. This is what often happens to those of faith when presented with solutions to the ‘problems of faith’ by those not of faith.
Many times, I have heard the sincere, but somewhat dim, point of view, “Well, all faiths are essentially the same – it’s the same God, isn’t it? People of faith just need to talk together and discover they are all the same!”
On a more trivial level, this is like saying, “Well a Yorkshireman is the same as a Scotsman – they are all from north of Watford!” But this is often the nub of the issue when commissioners from a non-faith or aggressively secular perspective are designing projects for those of faith. The assumed understanding, or faith illiteracy, is tiresome and somewhat lazy. We cannot expect all the nuances of faith to be understood, but let’s give room for a different perspectives; let’s at least recognise that secularism is not neutral. It is a world view, like any other and creates its own bias.
In many ways, when local and national government look at faith policy and decide that the problem is between faiths, they miss the whole issue – as well as a great opportunity. Let’s take the most common preconception: that the troubles that we face in relation to extremism are an existential conflict between Christianity and Islam. Although some right-wing groups have tried to appropriate Christianity and the language of crusade to attack Muslim communities, very few would be naïve enough to believe this really represents an issue between Muslim and Christians.
Acts of terror, said to be in the name of ISIS, are loudly condemned by Muslim leaders, showing that these are not the acts, or desires, of the majority of Muslims – any more than ultra right-wing groups represent Christians. Thus getting Muslims and Christians to sit down over a cup of tea to promote understanding may be very nice but will do very little to affect those who perpetrate these extremist acts.
Society has a problem with terrorism and hate. But it is not a one-faith-versus-the-other problem: the problem is what individuals do, not what faith does.
So, faiths don’t agree on who God is, or how we as humans relate to God, or how we should practise our beliefs. That’s why there are different faiths! Some discussions between faiths can be fervent and passionate, but I have not witnessed any inter-faith discussion that has been any more violent than a tame episode of Question Time. We don’t agree on everything – but that isn’t a problem.
Here’s the thing. If the starting point of dealing with faith or writing a faith policy is ‘faith is a problem’, then you have lost before you have even started. In pretty much all faiths, adherents see themselves as having a duty to the ‘widow and the orphan’ – the widow in today’s society being the person without independent means of income, and the orphan being the person without a place of belonging. Those two categories cover a number of the problems of today’s society. And what’s more, people of all faiths have a duty towards them. Even if ‘the widow’ or ‘the orphan’ is not a member of that particular faith, the duty still remains!
So do faith communities create problems? Sure, of course they do. But often those problems are not in any way related to the issues between religions, but rather between peoples and cultures. It drives me crazy when I am following a car which stops side-by-side with another, in the middle of the road, to have a chat through the window. How inconsiderate! But when I have visited other countries I’ve realised that not to stop and greet each other would be rude. Is this because of their shared faith? No! It’s their shared culture! The issue is not a case of ‘those Catholics’, ‘those Pentecostals’, ‘those Muslims’ – it’s just people.
Rather than trying to entice a bunch of faith leaders into an inter-faith discussion box, there should be more energy directed towards making true partnerships across civil society. This should be about ‘How can we make this place better for those who live, work and worship here?’ Why not consider how to release parking specifically for Muslim and Christians on a Friday and Sunday – the rest of the time using the space in other ways? Why not ask faith groups to do health checks at their locations? Why don’t we ask faith groups to have a vision for and commitment to their local area, and to adopt a local cause, for example?
You can’t do this if you see faith as a problem to be handled with secularist kid gloves. You can only do this if you see faith as an asset that can be leveraged.
And here’s a closing thought: faith groups don’t always realise what assets they are themselves and how they can be a positive contributor to local civil society. So if you are a person of faith reading this, think about what you can do, as a member of a faith community, to show your benefit to your local community!