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Religion and Belief report is not a humanist sell-out

18 December 2015


From Professor Tariq Modood

Sir, — Paul Vallely (Comment, 11 December) is wrong to say that the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, of which I am a member, “assumes from the outset that liberal humanism is the only sensible option in a diversifying society”.

On the contrary, we are highly critical of the combination of market and social liberalism which now dominates our society, and which thinks that personal choice is the only value that matters. Instead, we argue for a much richer concept of the common good, including a much wider set of values, to which the different religious traditions have a key part to play in contributing.

Mr Vallely also fails to take seriously our desire to chart a British narrative in which religion has played a key part in the past and, in a more diverse society, will continue to do so in the future in different ways. It firmly recognises the part that Christianity has played in shaping our history and institutions, and in the present more pluralist society, far from arguing for the overthrowing of that legacy, argues for widening it out in an inclusive direction. The Queen’s speech to Church of England bishops in 2012 sets this out admirably.

Anyone looking at our report would conclude that we want more religion, not less, in public life — including schools, on which our views have been misrepresented by some. We want religious education to be a compulsory subject on a par with English and maths. We think that schools should be free to have religion/belief-specific assemblies or several of them, but only for those who ask for them. We recognise that faith schools are an important part of our educational diversity, but they have a social cost in terms of increasing segregation, and we think they should aim to reduce that through their admissions policy, but we stipulate no quota.

Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship
Bristol Institute for Public Affairs
3 Priory Road, Bristol BS8 1TX


From the Revd Adrian Alker

Sir, — Paul Vallely is unfair to the value and integrity of the Woolf report on religion in British public life. I was asked by my bishop to organise the attendance at the Leeds hearing in October 2014, and, while the commission was indeed appointed by an independent body (it is hard to imagine who else might have undertaken such a mammoth task), it was an immense privilege to be there and to see such spirited engagement.

It was humbling to see how enthusiastically those who came talked about the landscape of religion: civic leaders, all faith representatives, teachers, those who represented a “voice to the voiceless”, be they asylum-seekers or those dependent on foodbanks.

Far from exhibiting an “impoverished secularism” (Mr Vallely’s words), the report in chapter two goes into great detail about the meaning and changes in religion and belief, challenging us to consider afresh what we understand about belief as conviction, and a broader view about the formation of values.

And here, I think, is the crunch issue for all faiths, but especially for those of us who define ourselves as Christians. The report uses statistical evidence to remind us that more and more people are describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, less convinced of the historic claims of Christian belief, and, indeed, about the existence of God.

Surely the Church would be wise to see the challenge of the report not as “liberal humanism”, as Mr Vallely claims, but as an invitation to engage with all those who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” in an honest dialogue about its beliefs and doctrines.

Such an honest engagement at all levels, for schools, parish churches, and theological colleges, would, of course, be uncomfortable, but, if we are to share a credible faith fit for this millennium, we need to look critically at the so-called foundations of that faith. We could do no better than to begin with the Christmas stories.

Chair, Progressive Christianity
Network Britain
23 Meadowhead, Sheffield S8 7UA


From Mr Nigel Holmes

Sir, — It was good to see the new Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, expressing concern at the dearth of religious programmes on television this Christmas. The BBC has more than most, but that is merely three per cent of output, half of which consists of repeats. On other television channels, there is almost nothing about the meaning of the season.

This loss at the Christian festivals follows years of progressive marginalisation elsewhere. A generation ago, Everyman and Heart of the Matter appeared prominently in the schedules for 48 weeks of the year. Until about ten years ago, ITV carried a weekly hour-long act of worship, and its children’s programme The Story Keepers was seen by almost half of four- to nine-year-olds, and attracted almost one third of all-age viewers on a Sunday morning. Channel 4 often offered peak-time treatment of religious and moral matters.

ITV now presents a single programme in the year which celebrates faith: carols at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve; the changing feel of Channel 4, perhaps being groomed for privatisation, offers little more.

The report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life devotes a perceptive chapter to the media. But it skates over the extent of the recent losses, saying simply that “many television channels have significantly reduced religious broadcasting.” It prefers to concentrate on news coverage of religion. It fails to mention the stark disparity of the treatment of religion on BBC radio and television.

If Beyond Belief on Radio 4, which debates religious and moral matters, can justify its prominent place in the schedules for at least six months of the year, why are there no such comparable series on BBC2 or BBC4? The Commission on Religion and Belief concludes its chapter on the media by quoting a single succinct submission: “I think broadcasting woke up to the wider world of faith rather too late. . . But I suppose what we didn’t know and weren’t prepared for was the sudden re-emergence of religion in the public sphere. Religion was supposed to be disappearing but has now come back with a vengeance.”

Woodside, Great Corby
Carlisle CA4 8LL

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