On Tuesday evening I headed to the 3 Faiths Forum offices in Kentish Town to listen to an excellent talk by “Faitheist’ Chris Stedman, currently on a brief tour from the U.S. As an atheist who has worked on numerous interfaith programmes myself, I really enjoyed the way he articulated the humanity at the heart of working in this area via a powerful personal narrative. The discussion that followed got me thinking about my own recent research in Bradford on the links between active citizenship and faith communities.
The varied and high quality group of respondents included Andrew Copsom of the British Humanist Association. He picked up on where Chris had begun his talk, in acknowledging the fact that in the U.S and U.K it would be misleading to draw an equivalence between the meaning of faith and non-faith in the respective contexts. This reality struck me early on in the talk, where Chris described the sense of exclusion for atheists in the States, which I don’t feel is felt in the same way here where religiosity is at a much lower level. Politically ‘doing God’ is a near requirement in the U.S, unlike the U.K where it has been famously advised against. Andrew picked up on this but also the point made by Chris that civic engagement, for a range of reasons, is higher among faith groups in the U.S than among non-faith communities. Andrew suggested that this was very much not the case in this country, where a broad social ethic was characteristic of society as a whole, and where religiosity was steadily decreasing.
Having spent twelve years working in Bradford in the sphere of volunteering and participation, it is difficult to have a sense of this declining significance. What sprang to mind, and as another excellent respondent Abdul-Rehman Malik noted, was that in the case of the Muslim community, whatever the individual levels of practice or belief, faith identity holds a significant place in peoples lives. Further I would also question the assertion that there are not differences in levels of civic engagement between the religious and non-religious in the UK. In the Bradford context at least, there are notable differences. Even beyond the Muslim community, I’m not sure that Christian social activism should be underestimated. On one social housing estate where I worked all five of the voluntary sector community organisations were Christian led. In a more general sense however, those from Muslim backgrounds outnumber more non-religious white communities in levels of civic participation. This was something I decided to investigate further while conducting research for my Masters dissertation last summer.
My awareness of this stems from previous work organising events and projects within the City. Often the disproportionate ease with which we could recruit from the (predominantly Muslim) Asian community actually proved an issue where a balanced representation was called for. As a result questions along the lines of ‘how can we get more white people?’ became common in planning meetings.
The mistake the non-religious might make when confronted with such realities is to feel put out by the idea that religion, isolated from other factors, somehow directly influences such behaviour in an instructive sense – thereby suggesting there is something lacking in secular ethics. However, and I have no idea how this compares in the U.S context, the influence that religion has in this regard is not always as an articulated directive or institutionally organised activity. It is also a general intuition that can be found in those from Muslim backgrounds both practicing and non-practicing alike – a social and cultural influence in a much broader sense. This sense of social responsibility and charity inherited through religious culture is still accompanied by other social facts. These include things inherent in the nature of being from a diaspora community; the need to find alternative spaces in which to freely explore identity and the desire to overcome isolation by reaching out to the wider local community (all of which contradict popular narratives of the self segregating community), but faith is a significant factor alongside this. Furthermore, as faith increasingly dominates discourse on difference and division – replacing notions of race and culture gone before – its relevance as a source of identity, particularly via prejudice and discrimination, can impact on an equally wide spectrum of people from Muslim backgrounds. Some of those I spoke to in the course of research were attached to religious culture but not belief, some to politics but not religion, some to religion as a tool to challenge cultural norms – but faith in one way or another was a significant factor in all their lives.
There was also some discussion at the talk on the relevance of the term interfaith in the light of the inclusion of non-faith and humanist/ atheist positions. I’m still not totally convinced by it, but if interfaith is still a valuable term it has to take into account the broad and variable way in which faith matters – both its various attachments to the lives of individuals and its changeable impact stemming from the wider political climate. In this way it should seek to include in dialogue not just atheists like me, but both the devout and non-practicing Muslim or ex-Muslim – the church activists and the religiously indifferent. Through such a broad range of participants, and with the right processes to accommodate all, perhaps we can do more, not less justice to the undoubted and continuing relevance of faith in contemporary Britain.