The last few months have seen the publication of three major reports about religion and belief in the UK (two of the reports relate specifically to religion and belief in schools) and a high court judgement that makes it clear that secular worldviews such as Humanism must be treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum in England and Wales (the high court judgement will eventually have a beneficial impact on RE/RS/philosophy and ethics’ syllabuses at GCSE, but its impact on locally agreed RE syllabuses will be almost immediate). Although all the reports and the high court judgement are important (they are largely in agreement about many of the most important matters addressed), I wish to concentrate here on only one of the four ground-shifting developments. Below, I provide the whole of the executive summary in the Woolf Commission’s “Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”:
The changing landscape
Over the past half century, Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition. There are three striking trends:
- The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in England and a third in Scotland in 2001.
- The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten, and at the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
- The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago, Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Although still comprising less than one in ten of the population, faith traditions other than Christianity have younger age profiles and are therefore growing faster.
Furthermore, intrafaith and interfaith disputes are inextricably linked to today’s geopolitical crises across the Middle East, and in many parts of Africa and Asia. Many of these disputes are reflected back into UK society, creating or exacerbating tensions between different communities.
So, twenty-first century ethno-religious issues and identities here in the UK and globally are reshaping society in ways inconceivable just a few decades ago, and how we respond to such changes will have a profound impact on public life.
Learning to live with difference
The resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions about the negative impact of such changes on society. These, in turn, may feed the very anxieties about immigration and the fear of “the other” that need to be addressed. Certainly the development of public policy related to religion and belief has too often been piecemeal and kneejerk.
The report is intended to be an alternative to such approaches: systematic, consistent and rational, looking at the areas of education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.
Learning to understand and live with differences is the recurring theme throughout the report. It argues that religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation. Religious and belief identities, the report points out, can serve as forces both for good and for ill.
And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good.
The commission’s vision is of a society at ease with itself in which all individuals, groups and communities feel at home, and in whose flourishing all wish to take part. In such a society all:
- feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future
- are treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities
- know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment, and that their contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued
- are free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others
- are confident in helping to shape public policy
- feel challenged to respond to the many manifest ills in wider society.
The implications of such a vision for public policy are of many kinds, and are highlighted throughout this report. Prominent amongst them are those which are briefly summarised below. Each is discussed and explained in much fuller detail in the main body of the report.
A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might be a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.
Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge. The commission therefore calls on educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognise and celebrate best practice in the media.
The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.
All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.
Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (“faith schools”) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.
The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example, by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship “Thought for the Day” to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.
A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.
Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and interworldview encounter and dialogue. Such dialogue should involve Dharmic as well as Abrahamic traditions, young people as well as older, women as well as men, and local groups as well as national and regional ones. Clergy and other opinion leaders should have a sound understanding of the traditions of religion and belief in modern society.
Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.
The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals such as ecclesiastical courts, Beit Din and Sharia councils.
The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.
In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the Government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.
The above is so important and insightful that some comments are essential. First, note the realities (“The changing landscape”) on which the report itself are founded and, in particular, that commitment to Christianity has declined a lot in recent years while the percentage of people devoid of any religion has risen rapidly. Second, note that ignorance about religion and belief is widespread in UK society (even among those who are, or project themselves as, religious authority figures). Third, note how there is an urgent need to engage with people of all religions and beliefs to agree the “fundamental values underlying public life”. Fourth, note that all pupils and students should have a nationally agreed statutory entitlement to a syllabus about religion, philosophy and ethics, and that the current daily act of collective worship should be replaced with a more inclusive time for reflection. Fifth, note the emphasis placed on gender equality, freedom of expression, freedom of enquiry, creating level playing fields for all religions and beliefs, and ensuring that religious courts and councils do not discriminate against individuals within their communities. Last, and in some ways perhaps the most important point of all, everyone in society should be “free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others”.