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Speech

Sayeeda Warsi: The importance of faith to life in Britain

Rt Hon Baroness Warsi , Wednesday, September 15 2010

Sayeeda Warsi

I am having a divine week. First, I celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr. Last night I was at dinner with the Chief Rabbi, who has just marked the Jewish New Year. Today I am delighted to be here with you, the Bishops of the Church of England. And on Friday I will be meeting His Holiness the Pope.

So if anyone suggests that this government does not understand, does not appreciate, does not defend people of faith, dare I even say, does not "do God", then I hope my schedule this week will go some way to banishing that myth.

But to be serious, I think everyone here will agree that we have had a big problem in Britain in the way the state has been handling issues of faith and religion.

Indeed, I would go even further: I think we have a big problem in the way we think about faith in our society as a whole.

This isn't the first time I've talked about this. Last year, I spoke out at the Conservative Conference about the growing suspicion of faith by the political elite in Britain.

That feeling was fuelled by a flurry of stories in the media: The nurse suspended from her job for offering to pray for the recovery of a patient; The think-tank report suggesting that we downgrade Christmas to help race relations; And reports of faith charities being put off from applying for public funding by a barrage of bureaucracy.

Whichever way you see it, it's clear we have got into a real mess when it comes to talking about the relationship between faith and society. The political elite in particular have got things badly wrong. Far too often, too many intellectuals, journalists, commentators and politicians have been too quick to dismiss faith and its contribution to society.

Unpicking these problems is a huge operation, but today I want to make a start and focus on one part of the confusion: The role of government.

Now I don't want to score big political points this morning. It's clear that there are people of integrity in all parties and beyond. What's more, whatever is said about the previous two Prime Ministers, there is no doubt they were men of faith and spiritual sincerity.

But at the same time, it seems clear that the previous government did get things profoundly wrong. It got things wrong because it sent the wrong signals about the right relationship between state, faith and society.

To quote the Archbishop of Canterbury last year: "The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it's an eccentricity, [and that] it's practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities."

Oddities, foreigners, minorities. Some people would say I fall into all three categories.

But of course, faith isn't something confined to these people. `So the question is why the last government came to the impression that it was.

And as I see it, it was because of the following things:

  • they misjudged the actual state of faith in our society - they thought that faith was essentially a rather quaint relic of our pre-industrial history;
  • they were also too suspicious of faith's potential for contributing to society - behind every faith-based charity, they sensed the whiff of conversion and exclusivity; 
  • and because of these prejudices they didn't create policies to unleash the positive power of faith in our society.

As a result of all this, the relationship between state, faith and society got out of kilter.

We urgently need to put that right - and that means starting by doing three things.

  • First, we need to understand the current state of faith in Britain.
  • Second, we need a richer recognition of the Anglican and wider faith-based contribution to society.
  • And third, we need to draw the right conclusions for policy, especially when it comes to voluntary action, social cohesion and the Big Society.

Let me take each of these steps in turn.

THE STATE OF FAITH

First, the current state of faith in Britain and the world.

Twenty years ago, Soviet communism came to an end revealing shocking information about how terribly Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other minorities had been treated by the Soviet Empire. Soon afterwards, Bosniak Muslims were ethnically cleansed in Bosnia which reminded us of the horrors of the Holocaust.

And then, just as some were claiming that a clash of faiths and civilisations was inevitable, came the terrible events of September 11th.Sadly, some took that day as the excuse to scale up their attacks on all people of faith. Others kept pushing the myth that religion had died out in modern societies and was the source of most conflict in less developed ones. And meanwhile we have seen the rise of a new kind of intellectual, who dines out on free flowing media and sustains a vocabulary of secularist intolerance.

But is faith actually in decline? Is it a symptom of economic backwardness? And with the progress of history, is faith something which will ultimately fade away? Not as I see it.

For a start, we know that the proportion of people in the world who adhere to the four biggest religions has actually increased in the past century.

And right here in Britain, despite what many say, religion is certainly not going away.

Not only did up to eighty per cent of British people say that they had some kind of religious belief in the last census but there is evidence to show that religious attendance actually seems to be rising. Tearfund tells us that number of people attending church each year increased between 2007 and 2008, from around one in five adults to around one in four. Cathedral worship has increased since the turn of the century. And the Baptist Union have been recording rising attendances - especially among the young.

Part of the problem of course is that for decades university social science departments taught that as societies modernised they would become more secular. And they suggested that as the 'modern' state grew, faith-based voluntary action and social care would wither away.

One of the most extreme examples is the sociologist Peter Berger. Back in 1968, Peter Berger predicted that "by the twenty-first century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture". Fast forward three decades, and he has had to retract the prediction completely.

The fact is that our world is more religious than ever. Faith is here to stay. It is part of the fabric of human experience. And in Britain faith is very much alive and kicking.

Deny it and you deny the ability of a huge part of society to articulate where they have come from, what they are working for, and who they are.

UNDERSTANDING THE FAITH-BASED CONTRIBUTION

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than when you consider the social action of millions of British believers and the work of the almost 30,000 faith-based charities.

And that brings me to the second point I want to make.

We have to come to a deeper understanding about the contribution of these faith communities to our society. In other words, why they do the good things they do. Unless we understand what drives people of faith to contribute to society, we cannot hope to help them on their way.

Now there will always be people who look at faith-based charities and think they are something sinister. There will always be people who think that religious organisations are up to no good or on the make. You can see it in the debates at the end of the 19th century, when some parliamentarians argued that the rise of convents and monasteries was a threat to our liberty. You can see it in the way that many modern sceptics criticise Mosques, Temples, Churches and faith-based charities over the social work they do.

They fail to see the vital link between these peoples' faiths and their contribution to society. They fail to see that these people feel inspired to help others because of their faith.

Let me give you just a few examples of what I mean.

The 2008 Citizenship Survey suggests that those who are religiously observant are more likely to volunteer and give than their non-believing or non-practising counterparts. Again and again you see similar patterns taking shape whether it is the care of Jewish social welfare charities, the huge generosity of Muslims and others in response to the floods in Pakistan or the work of local church groups to help those overwhelmed by drink, drugs, or crime.

When you think about it, it's incredible that many people of faith give up their evenings to work as street pastors making sure that young men are less at risk of knife crime and young women less likely to run into trouble after a night out.

A second line of attack from secular fundamentalists is that faith communities are "intolerant" and their welfare provision is "exclusive" or "contractual". But recent research by York University shows that faith based provision for the homeless was both more open and inclusive than other agencies. It also came with far fewer strings attached, because it less often danced to the tune of 'targets'.

But when you try to tell the "new atheists" about these sorts of facts, too often, they simply do not want to know.

An increasing body of evidence reveals the economic contribution of Cathedrals their important work in running faith schools and the emotional support offered in hospitals, prisons and other social institutions by faith-based charities.

And very often, faith communities offer us innovations which the whole of society can learn from: The Fairtrade movement was launched in an Anglican theological College in the North East. Churches were integral to the emergence of the anti-homelessness and the anti-slavery movements. The story of overseas development cannot be written without the names Christian Aid, CAFOD Islamic Relief, Jewish Care, and Muslim Aid.

Of course in England it's hard not to notice the presence in every community of a parish church served by clergy. It's absurd to stereotype these parishes as 'holy huddles'. They are hubs around which people of all faiths and none can meet, greet and build relationships in what can be a fragmented society. As you know better than any of us, they are also the bases where post offices, libraries and job clubs have been co-located. They are the place where self-help groups for those facing addictions can meet affordably.

So the real question is not: "how should big government be controlling faith-based organisations"...

....but "how can government help people of faith do even more to build the Big Society?"

FAITH AND THE BIG SOCIETY

And that takes me to the third point I want to make.

Once we are clear about the reason why faith-based charities do all the good things they do, we can put in place the right policies to support them responsibly. It's simple:

Faith gives rise to huge numbers of personal kindnesses and other civic contributions; Faith shapes beliefs, behaviour and a sense of purpose; And so what government should be doing is helping people of faith express themselves in this way.

My conviction is that in a stronger and bigger society the scope for people of faith to take their places as equals at the public table should become easier not just on so called 'stake-holding' bodies but as the vanguard of an increasingly decentralised civic society.

Let me explain what I mean.

As Lord Wei will be saying later, our aim with the Big Society is to build a culture where we don't just look to government to solve all our big problems. Where people are empowered and feel encouraged to take control of their local communities and neighbourhoods. And where we foster a new culture of social responsibility - not by legislation but by example and collaboration.

Just imagine if the whole nation could give to charity at the same levels as people of faith already do. The question is how can government help to bring that about?

One big part of it is about giving you - charities, churches, faith groups, community groups - the chance to do even more good. That means giving you the chance to take control over local community buildings or run services where the community thinks that you could do that well.

Under our plans, you will have more power, more responsibility, and more choice over how to get involved in your communities and over how to apply your skills.

Another part of it is about showing that we are all in this together, and ensuring that no community and no corner of society gets left behind.

That's one of the reasons why the Cabinet Office plans to establish a new fund to invest in poorer communities, called the Communities First Fund.

And then there is the funding you will be able to access through our Big Society Bank - a bank built up not of new taxpayers' money, but unclaimed bank accounts.

But above all we want to encourage a bonfire of the petty rules and prejudices that have held you and others back for so long. It seems crazy for the state to offer support to the voluntary sector and then shackle it with so many targets. And it's crazy that bidding for funds as a faith-based charity is made more difficulty by a kind of religious illiteracy in local authorities.

All of this needs to change and be challenged - and that's what this government will be about.

So I don't just want to say to you that you have a lot to contribute to building the Big Society. I want to tell you that for me you are at the heart of society already and key to its future, and that this government will be on your side.

CONCLUSION

As I have said today, we urgently need to rethink the way we think about faith in society. The challenges of the late 20th century and early 21st century have revealed a world which is more religious than ever. It is a world where faith inspires, motivates and sustains - despite what the sociologists thought they could predict about the modern world.

We need to get the relationship between state, religion and society in sync with this new reality.

In Britain the resilience of religion gives us the confidence to reject the intolerance of secularist fundamentalists. It should also give us the confidence to recognise fully the huge contribution of believers everywhere.

And to do that, we need first and foremost a government which understands faith, which is comfortable with faith, and which when necessary, is prepared to speak out about issues of faith.

And so that leaves me with the last point I want to make.

It would be easy to make this speech and walk away, maybe with the promise of returning next year. But I am serious when I say that I will be thinking about all these issues long and hard over the next few months. And I will always be ready and willing to speak out and help lead the debate.

Because however things pan out over the next five years, I don't want anyone to look back and say: "This government thought that people of faith were eccentrics or oddities."

Instead, I want this to be a new beginning for relations between society, faith and the state. Thank you.

Rt Hon Baroness Warsi

Sayeeda is Senior Minister of State, Foreign Office, & Minister for Faith & Communities. She is a leading campaigner for racial justice.

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Warsi Sayeeda

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