This is my initial response to the Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. There’s been a lot of fuss about it (though if it really is the worst report that Ruth Gledhill has ever read, it suggests she hasn’t been paying attention to the General Synod very well).
Let’s start with the positives:
1. It is good that this is being talked about seriously on the public stage. Religion is going to be an important part of the life of the whole world, including Britain, in the coming decades.
2. The emphasis on religious literacy is hugely important and welcome. We need to be able to distinguish between different traditions within religions. Put very simply, the current situation in the Middle East is incomprehensible if you only have one category for Muslim.
3. Placing religion and belief at the heart of a national conversation about the fundamental values underlying public life sounds a lot more promising than the undefined but OFSTED enforceable ‘British values’ that the government has decreed.
4. Allowing religious bodies to deliver social goods shouldn’t require a commission at this level – it is just common sense.
5. Framing the report around living with difference is hugely important. This is the heart of the matter, and the range of recommendations to support our living with difference, from dialogue to law, shows a sophisticated approach to a hard question.
A quick tour of some difficulties may also be in order.
1. The Commission are surely right to try to broaden the scope to religion and belief. But it is unclear that they have managed this consistently. Religions have institutions and official spokespeople (even if they don’t always share the actual beliefs of their congregations, as Linda Woodhead has demonstrated in relation to the Church of England). It is very unclear whether National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association speak for anyone other than their members, and whether belief in a very general sense can have any sort of institutional basis. To put this more starkly, it is not clear that non-religious belief systems map easily as equivalents to religious faith. This remains a real challenge to our shared quest to live with difference.
2. Similarly, there is a good deal of sense to the call for a greater pluralism to be reflected in national and civic events. The call for pluralism rather than a supposedly neutral secularism is welcome. In part this is what already happens. The question remains how this can be sustained, how the space can be kept for this. The Church of England as the established church has, as the Commission acknowledge, done much for this in terms of religion, but been less good at holding the space for humanist and secular belief systems. The national debate called for is not really a means of helping to organise this pluralist approach.
Two further thoughts:
1. The vision of education that the Commission offers is welcome and valuable, but is striking in its contrast to the instrumental approach to education followed by successive recent governments. Perhaps this is inevitable. If faith and belief is to contribute to education, then turning out economically productive units is unlikely to be the main goal of the education conceived. This vision for education is more important than the spat about daily acts of worship that the Church of England wants to have (they are a dead letter in many places, and surely there is something self-contradictory about compulsory worship!).
2. Perhaps the most interesting and potentially valuable contribution of the Commission is when it addresses the questions raised by counter-terror legislation. Rather than the conflict between human rights and national security that is frequently depicted in the media, the Commission raises a host of important questions that would drastically change our approach to these questions, and would seem on first reading to make a real and solid contribution to opposing the ideologies that drive acts of terror. This section of the report repays some detailed reading.
This is an important report. It is not the last word. Let us hope and pray that it is not ignored as inconvenient either by church or by state.