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Religious values for a secular world

27 June 2014

A UN conference has asked for input on goals from faith groups, says Paul Vallely

IT WAS a conference of almost all the world's main religions. There were Daoists and Confucians from China, Muslims from Indonesia and England, Hindus and Sikhs from India, Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Lutherans from Scandinavia, Baptists from the United States, Anglicans and Roman Catholics from Africa, and Shinto priests from Japan. Yet the two most inspiring speeches came from secular figures.

Earlier this month, I was in Ise, a Shinto shrine in Japan, for a conference at which the United Nations had invited faith input into the shaping of the Sustainable Development Goals, which, the UN hopes, will take over as a new international benchmark when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire at the end of 2015.

Keynote speeches were given by two outsiders. Olav Kjørven, the UN's Assistant Secretary-General, began by asking the religious leaders what got them up in the morning. "This is the kind of question we don't generally ask at the United Nations," he said. "It's part of the things that we lose sight of." The MDGs had been drafted by technocrats and economists whose focus was materialist. But, if the world was to survive, it needed some new yardsticks, which embodied deeper spiritual values.

The Daoist concept of yin and yang, and the need for balancing the earthly and the heavenly, offered insights into how we should treat the environment, he said. The Sikh tradition of providing food for all, without conditions, could teach us how to address the rising inequalities in the world. St Paul's insistence that "If I have no love, I am but a noisy gong," should be applied to the love of God's creation.

It was ideas, not technology, that would bring about real change in our world, said Ian Johnson, the Secretary General of the Club of Rome - which, 40 years ago, produced the pioneering report The Limits of Growth. "As a world, we are wealthier than we've ever been, and yet we are not providing enough jobs, and two billion people still live in absolute poverty," he said, pointing to several disconnects. "The financial sector has gone its own way, and is not serving the needs of the economy. And our economy has become divorced from our ecology." Both must be reversed.

As proof that values can be more transformative than technologies, he cited three recent examples of change. Attitudes and practices on drink-driving and recycling have altered radically only because of a significant shift in people's value-judgements. "People are now doing the right thing, and for its own sake," he said. He detected the beginning of a similar change on attitudes to the way we waste food. "There's an appetite in society for a new values-based approach on a range of issues. Faith organisations can be crucial in helping to change and raise expectations."

The conference, organised by the Alliance for Religion and Conservation, was named "Tradition for the Future". The challenge is how traditional religious ideas about transcendence, community, service, and self-sacrifice can be reimagined to gain traction in a secular world.

Paul Vallely is Senior Research Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester.

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