Framing communities through faith

The Economist Debate which has just finished raises some difficult questions.

The topic under vigorous discussion was This house believes that religion is a force for good. It has consistently been the case however that readers of The Economist hold no such view; throughout the exchange around three quarters of them rejected the proposition in hand.

Some striking findings would seem to support The Economist readers’ position. The Debate Moderator, Roger McShane, reported in his introductory remarks that in 2007 The Pew Research Centre ….found that majorities in a number of countries, including America, felt that belief in God was a necessary precursor to being a “moral” person with “good values”. But in the same survey Pew found that similar majorities felt homosexuals should be rejected by society, intolerance apparently passing for a good value in many moral households.

Religion as identity and influence?
So where does this leave us? In a world where more Americans than a year ago – especially his growing number of opponents – now believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim (he is in fact Christian), how does ‘religion’ play in modern-day thinking about the future?

Are religious labels still used by significant numbers as a way of indicating approval or dislike of people and communities?

Can ‘religion’ have a positive influence, independently of the good intent (or otherwise) of individuals, whether of faith or not?

* Are readers of The Economist correct in maintaining that religion is negative in its overall effect?

* And is faith best left as a private, personal matter not recognised as significant by the state?

* Do official / formal organisations sometimes use ‘faith communities’ as short-hand for groups of people who might more constructively be identified in other ways?


Posted on October 16, 2010, in Questions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Although I don’t believe there has ever been a comprehensive study of the impact of religion, I would err on the side of religion being a negative influence. It discourages critical thought, openmindedness and self exploration, whilst encouraging tribalism, submission to authority and distrust of the ‘other’.

    Many religious people argue that the basis of their tribe is tolerance and acceptance. However, it is clear that most ‘holy books’ can be used to justify both love and hatred of one’s neighbour, depending on how one wishes to selectively read.

    If people wish to believe in (a) god(s) or a religion (this is a significant distinction – the former is a being, objective evidence for which is not forthcoming, and the latter a system imposed by such a being) it is up to them as long as they do not impinge upon the rights of others in the process.

    This includes their children; people do not have the right to make up their children’s minds for them. Indeed, if the truth of what they say is as self evident as they suggest, there should be no need to impose their views upon their offspring.

    The only role for the state as regards religion is to ensure that people acting in such a way do not have their rights impinged upon as a result. However, there is no reason to have different laws for different sets of people. Bullying is bullying, harrassment is harrassment, persecution is persecution, whatever the ‘grounds’.

    ‘Faith communities’, like any other shorthand, is necessarily lazy and indiscriminate in lumping together diverse people. Followers of a religion are no more homgeneous than people who are homosexual or heterosexual, white or brown, male or female.

    And this indiscrimination is not innocuous. Such organisations come to believe their own rhetoric, so feel that when they have consulted a ‘community leader’ they have consulted all the people they have placed within those brackets. This is clearly delusional.

  2. More to think about, from the Washington Post today…

    Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell during a debate with Chris Coons on Tuesday:

    “So you’re telling me . . . that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is found in the First Amendment?”

    And for expert opinion see also:

  3. I would add to my post above that I believe free speech to be an inviolable principle. People have the right to say whatever they want, regardless of the consequences or who is offended. This is an important part of the basis of an open, intelligent society, and it should not be curtailed in the name of protecting followers of a religion or the secular state. I am offended by people who believe that the state should not redistribute wealth, but nobody would suggest they should be stopped from saying it. It should be the same for criticism of religion.

  4. There are subtle and significant distinctions to be made between faith, religion and spirituality. We may be spiritual without belonging to any faith. We may claim to profess a certain religious belief, but our actions wouldn’t reflect this. The common denominator is the ‘individual’ who is responsible for choosing to express their behaviour. It is the individual who has to decide on what basis to act -whether guided by a set of values they have grown up with or not.

    It is my belief that faith and spirituality are forces for good. Religions can be seen as ‘cultural’ ways in which these are expressed, but, in my view, they generally reflect sets of positive values and principles that are, in themselves, ‘good’ and can guide us in how we interact with others.

    If our value systems encourage us to act in the interests of others, and question what goes on, then isn’t faith a good thing? Surely, our expression of faith or set of beliefs means little if it is only expressed behind closed doors on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday? For eample, the original ‘Faith in the Cities’ report (1985) highlighted the disparities in our Inner Cities and showed that people and other institutions, not just the state, can have a role to play.

    However, as Dan points out, it is people who interpret these values to justify their own actions (the Crusades, the Inquisition, ‘Holy’ wars, homophobia, etc. etc.), and it is this which, I think, leads people to conclude that the religion is ‘bad’.

    Taking Dan’s point about free speech – yes and no. Yes – people should have a right to think and speak for themselves, but, in my view, simply because you can doesn’t always mean that you should.

  5. Hi Gerry

    I assume by ‘spirituality’ you mean belief in something other than the material world, and by faith something similar. Can you explain how belief in something that cannot be proven, ie not keeping an open mind, is a “force for good”? This goes as much for those who believe there is no god/afterlife/spiritual realm etc as those who believe there is.

    How can you maintain that religions “reflect sets of positive values and principles” that are ‘good’ when they just as often justify things like mutilation, hatred/distrust of the other, elevation of believers over non-believers, capitulation to authority, acceptance of the word of a book or leader over thinking for oneself, etc? You can pick and choose the bits you listen to, but you cannot argue that religions generally reflect sets of positive values and principles without ignoring mountains of historical evidence to the contrary.

    You’re right that it would sometimes be better that someone didn’t exercise their right to free speech, but it is much more important that they have the right to offend than that someone is spared offense. Also, why should it be different for religious believers or people of faith? My point about the state can be backed up with evidence that redistribution leads to greater human happiness. A religion or person of faith has no objective evidence for the existence of a god, spiritual realm etc. but I’m supposed to treat them differently; why?


  6. What a refreshing change to see intelligent and thought-provoking discussion involving religion and faith without yah-boo jeering, name-calling and bible-bashing; thank you Dan and Gerry. Just to add my tuppeny-worth; I agree with the majority of what you say Dan but I also agree with Gerry’s assertion about free-speech; it’s all very well to have the right to think and say what you want, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should exercise that right. I think that a ‘decent’ society requires that its members demonstrate tolerance and respect for each other, and part of that respect is not to offend people just because one feels they need to exercise a right to free speech. To offend people unneccessarily simply for the sake of exercising a principle is to cause resentment and ill-feeling, neither of which are positive things.

  7. Hi Mike

    As I said, it would sometimes be better that someone didn’t exercise their right to free speech. However, to remove that right from someone just because someone else was offended by something they said would be totalitarian. Even if someone was being offensive just to exercise their right I would defend them; the right to say what one wants is inalienable. Are you suggesting that offending people ‘unnecessarily’ could be justification of the removal of the right to free speech?

    And, in any case, how do we define ‘unnecessarily’? The burning of the national flag in the United States could be labelled unnecessary, but to many it has become an important and emotive demonstration of their right to freedom of expression in the face of totalitarian forces.


  8. Dan,

    Not for a moment would I suggest that someone’s right to express an opinion should be removed, but with every right comes a responsibility to behave in a civilised and respectful manner in the public domain and that, to me, is as important in a ‘civilised’ society as the rights of which we speak. Let them have the inalienable right to say what they want in the privacy of their own homes, without fear of retribution or persecution, but in the public domain they should show respect and consideration for those around them. Extremists, for example, see it as acceptable to say and do whatever they want, wherever they want, with no regard for the offence they may cause: whilst taking advantage of the right to freedom of expression, such people more often than not espouse ideologies etc in which such concepts of freedom of expression are forbidden, that the general population find offensive/oppressive and are often guilty of extreme hypocrisy. I would bet a pound to a penny that such people would not calmly allow you to express an alternate opinion in their presence.

    Absolute freedom of expression is a wonderful ideological concept, but in a reasonable and civilised society there has to be a balance between rights and responsibilities.

  9. What are you suggesting then Mike? It sounds as if you’d like to legislate to curtail freedom of speech in public – which is what the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 did to a certain extent. You say that, “Not for a moment would I suggest that someone’s right to express an opinion should be removed”, but quickly qualify your statement. I’m afraid that you are suggesting just that.

    I believe ‘extremists’ should be allowed to say whatever they want in public, because only then will we be able to expose them for what they are. As I argued in a blog post last year (

    “The only way we are going to tackle the BNP and similar organisations is by exposing them for what they are – by publicising the contents of their constitutions and allowing them air time to hang themselves with their own words. If we force them to cover up their true beliefs and deny them freedom of speech, all the public will see are underdogs railing against the government, the lone person fighting the system, and the political attraction of such a sight cannot be underestimated.”

    You rightly say that extremists “would not calmly allow you to express an alternate opinion in their presence”, which is exactly why we should allow them to do so, lest we begin to travel down the same path.

    I believe that what we need to do is bring about “a reasonable and civilised society”, not legislate for it by banning things we don’t like; in any case, it simply won’t work. Really changing things is the harder path, but it will lead to a better society rather than a stifled one.

  10. Not at all Dan, my initial ‘argument’ was that I wouldn’t remove the right to free speech, just restrict where it could be expressed; in which case, perhaps what I mean is not necessarily ‘free’ speech after all. However, I like the rest of your argument – I hadn’t thought about the ‘exposing them for what they are’ angle and, I suppose, if you retsrict it, potentially it just goes undergrund where it is more dangerous – I think perhaps I am convinced – let them say what they want and be damned. Any way, I think we’ve wandered off-topic here.


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