LOVE it or hate it, religion is now a significant player on the public stage. For good and ill, it affects many aspects of our life together. It is, therefore, vital that government, civic society, and the religions themselves try to think coherently and consistently about its place in public life and the policies that should be in place towards it.
For this reason, the Woolf Institute, in Cambridge, convened an independent commission on religion and belief in public life, under the chairmanship of Baroness Butler-Sloss. It contains representatives of all the main faiths, and includes the humanist position.
Set up two years ago, it is scheduled to publish its report next Monday. Those two years have included extensive consultations in all four parts of the UK, and six weekend meetings for commissioners, besides receiving more than 200 written submissions.
Behind its work is a realisation that the religious landscape has changed dramatically over the past 30 years or so. First, there is the huge increase in the number of people who say that they have no religion — nearly half the population.
Second, there is the decline of the mainstream Christian Churches. Third, there is the growth in religions other than Christianity. Muslims now form 4.5 per cent of the population, for example, and they are much more strongly represented in the younger age-group.
Furthermore, the whole understanding of religion has shifted. Whereas once it was thought of mainly in terms of belief, now it is often seen as what people wear or eat. Again, religion is now very much a badge of identity, whatever people’s personal beliefs might be, and this often overlaps with racial issues.
ONE concern we had was the kind of national story that we are creating for our children and grandchildren. What it is to be British has changed, is changing, and will change still further. As religion in the past has been fundamental to our national identity, so, in a different way, it will be a vital factor in the future.
Our vision is of a society that feels at ease with itself, in which all religions are treated with equal respect and concern by government agencies, and in which they feel they have a contribution to make to its continuing story.
With that in mind, we looked at the key areas of the media, law, education, dialogue, and social action.
It will not be a surprise to many that all religious communities feel themselves to be misrepresented in the media, and feel some resentment about this. This is linked to the wider and more pervasive problem of religious literacy — or, rather, a lack of it — in our society.
If we are to have a harmonious society, in which people feel that their deepest convictions are at least understood by others, then clearly something needs to be done about this across a range of areas.
Education obviously has an important part to play. We were very concerned that there are now something like 174 different agreed syllabuses for religious education, and, with the growth of academies and free schools, we have to ask whether there are adequate inspections not only about what is taught, but how it is taught. Education, not propaganda, must be the driving force.
Then, of course, there is the contentious issue of religious assemblies in schools, and whether they should be done away with altogether.
THE section on law had to consider the position of those who now feel that their right to express and practise their religion has been curtailed by anti-discrimination laws on sexuality. The European Court in Strasbourg has ruled on the recent high-profile cases, but that may not be the last word.
No less contentious is the issue of disputes being heard by sharia tribunals. They are not the only religious body to have their own procedures. Judaism has the Beth Din, but issues affecting women’s rights have arisen under the sharia system, and this needed to be looked at.
One sensitive area is the Government’s counter-terrorism policy — and its approach to Islam in particular — with its emphasis on British values’ being taught in schools. For whatever reason, and rightly or wrongly, many Muslims feel that they are being made to feel “other” by some of the ways in which these necessary policies are being carried out, and we had to address this as well.
MEMBERSHIP of the Commission was a good experience, involving much hard but civilised argument. Certainly, there was no getting away with any Anglican complacency about the place of the Church of England in the public sphere.
Although the part played by the Church of England is usually applauded by other faith communities, there is also a negative side that is experienced, in particular, by Humanists.
In all, we make 37 recommendations — some of them controversial. Whether or not people agree with them, we are hoping that government departments, religious leaders, and those of no religion will engage in the conversation that we have started, in order that our society might indeed be enriched by its growing religious diversity, and that this might contribute to the shaping and flourishing of the common good.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford, is a member of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life.