Good questions, weak answers? A review of the report on the commission on religion and belief in British public life

Living With Difference, the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, gives an excellent overview of the changing shape of faith in the UK, and asks some very pertinent questions. However, the answers it offers are, for the most part, neither particularly new nor particularly radical, and it is difficult to see how much difference they would actually make, if implemented.

These are my conclusions on the report.

I have to say, it’s an enjoyable read and I commend it to anyone who has an hour to spare and wants a nuanced view of the changes in Britain’s religious life and the questions that it throws up. In an area of debate famous for its tub-thumping, Baroness Butler-Sloss’s report consistently steers a middle path. However, in doing so, it fails to offer answers to the questions it asks, and instead provides answers to questions it did not ask.

The conclusions, which cover education, media, (inter-faith) dialogue, (social) action and law, have been at least partially covered in today’s press. Broadening the representation of faith groups in the House of Lords, abolishing the requirement to have an act of worship in schools, introducing a statutory entitlement (whatever that is) to a broad-based belief subject in schools, and in framing counter-terrorism legislation, government should seek to promote rather than limit freedom of enquiry, speech and expression.

However, the 37 recommendations, when taken together, fail to answer some of the key issues raised in the report itself. How do we balance the hierarchy of rights which, according to some contributors, puts religious freedom and conscience at the bottom and, according to others, puts it right at the top? How can religious groups be resourced to engage in all the dialogue that is now mandated on them, given that, by the report’s own admission, numbers and resources are shrinking? What practical steps can be taken in term’s of press literacy or religion (the 7 recommendations here do not really answer the question as the report poses it)?

More importantly—and ever-present between the lines, though rarely emerging into the open—what steps do you take to change societal attitudes as a whole, and what changes should there be?

It seems to me that this is the crunch question which the report introduces, underpins with good research and much dialogue, and then does nothing about.

Let me say that I am not really against any of the 37 recommendations. Abolishing a compulsory act of worship in schools and replacing it with something more inclusive is not going to radically change anything. I would welcome hearing Richard Dawkins occasionally on Thought for the Day. I don’t agree with the House of Lords, but, if we have to have it, having religious representatives from a broader background is, I think, a good thing. Offering non-religious chaplaincy in hospitals, prisons and higher education would seem very reasonable.

And yet, and yet: we could do all these things, and not come up with a society which was any more tolerant of religious difference, any more generally informed about its varying strands of belief, and any better at steering people away from radicalisation and extremism.

Radicalisation and extremism, are, of course, the hidden terms in the report. They are referred to sparsely in the text, though more frequently in the bibliography. On the one hand, we are aware that some people are being drawn into patterns of thought which make them amenable to taking violent action. On the other hand, it is evident that large numbers of people who have no association with extremism, no tendency toward violence and no support for radical groups are being treated by mainstream society with suspicion and even ill-will. The report does discuss the poor use of language in the media which can exacerbate this. But it proposes no suitable remedy, beyond broader awareness among journalists.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the report. It brings together a vast amount of research, gives fairly authoritative access to lots of surveys which are otherwise hard to track down, has clearly been carefully checked (and is therefore a much better place to start a discussion than most online resources) and has been written without even a sliver of axe being ground.

To some extent, I feel it would have been better as an interim report, without the recommendations. Opening up the House of Lords and Thought for the Day may seem radical to some, but for the vast majority of people in this country, they won’t make a great deal of difference. I wonder if, at some points, some very good ideas have been watered down.

 

To me, the most important recommendation, though it doesn’t go nearly far enough, is that of a

“statutory entitlement for all schools within the state system for a subject dealing with religious and non-religious worldviews. They should establish content and learning objectives that can be flexibly applied by teachers, allowing the minimum requirements to be built on differently by different schools. The content should be broad and inclusive in a way that reflects the diversity of religion and belief in the UK, and the subject should have the same status as other humanities subjects.”

I sense that somewhere in there are the remnants of a much bolder and directly applicable proposal.

Let me unpack that for a moment.

I’m a committed Christian, and I went to a notionally Christian secondary school, which also happened, at the time, to be the most academically successful in Britain. However, even as a committed Christian, I found Religious Studies to be deeply dull. It gave me no new insights about my own faith (for which I do not blame my teachers at all), and very little about anybody else’s. I did learn about Ur Naptishun, but I didn’t learn anything about Mohammed. I was entirely in the dark about the Pillars of Islam, about notions of Karma, and about the moral philosophy of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

This is in no way a criticism of my school or my teachers. Having discussed the issue with teachers and pupils over many years, my sense is that this is not particularly unusual. There have been a number of attempts to reform religious education since. However, based on my conversations with Religious Studies teachers over the last couple of years, I sense that the consensus is that they have not yet achieved what they need to.

As written, I’m not sure how much better the recommendation above would be. However, what I think it tries to say, or someone at some point tried to say through it, is that we should be guaranteeing every young person a level of religious literacy similar to their level of ability in English and History. I would personally go beyond that, and say that we should be guaranteeing young people religious and cultural literacy. (I am not using the word ‘culture’ here as a euphemism for ethnicity.)

It seems to me that in today’s world, all non-Muslims need to be given a sympathetic understanding of Islam: not only its theology, but also Islamic cultures, and how they respond to Islam in different ways. In terms of Christianity, I think everyone (and especially people who are from a Christian background, and therefore imagine that they understand it) needs to understand the inter-relation between Christianity and culture in the USA, in Russia, in South America, in sub-Saharn Africa, and in China. For people from a UK Christian background, it is far too easy to assume that Christian=British (while simultaneously mocking Americans for making the same mistake). The same should apply also to Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Judaism and various kinds of humanism.

The purpose in this should not be to study religion, thereby being an expert on it, but rather to be religiously literate in a society which requires us to navigate increasingly complex currents of thinking.

I understand why such an attempt is easy to water down. At opposite ends of the debate, there will be people who insist that Christianity is the dominant religion in Britain, and therefore should get the lion’s share of Religious Studies time, while at the other end there will be people who regard all religion as a form of delusion, and something which should therefore be banned from school premises.

The ultimate conclusion of the report — I think, if I may give my own summary of its summaries — is that Britain is no longer a ‘Christian’ nation (if it ever was, of course), but neither is it a secular nation. We need to develop our structural response to religion and public life in the light of that.

As a conclusion, it is hard to argue with. However, something firmer and further reaching than the report’s recommendations is required. More importantly, someone needs to have the task of taking action. Otherwise, like so many reports, it will fade like the proverbial morning mists.

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