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Faith-based activism and social inclusion in the secular age

Does religion bring people together or does it create tensions and reinforce societal divides? This topic continues to stimulate lively discussions about religion and its role in promoting community activism and social inclusion in Britain.

Recent data from opinion polls indicates that the social value of religious affiliation remains contested. According to the Global Study done in 2017, 6 in 10 people in Britain believe that religion does more harm than good. A survey by Ipsos-Mori for the BBC found that 47% thought that differences between religions were seen as a one of the key drivers for divisions. Based on this evidence, the National Secular Society has even recommended for policymakers to avoid dividing people along religious lines.

The ways in which religious affiliation is perceived in British society offers an intriguing insight into public attitudes towards religious equality and inclusion. For example, 27% of adult Britons interviewed by YouGov in August 2018 felt that it was more acceptable to criticise Christianity, but 49% suggested that it was neither more nor less acceptable to criticize Christianity than any other religion. The same poll also revealed that respondents saw clear benefits of people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds mixing together.

A mutually-beneficial relationship between religion, social capital and community activism is well documented. Not only is it evidenced by extensive work by Christian organisations (see Church in Action: A National Survey), but also by minority faith groups, including Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities (see Public Faith and Finance or Belief in Social Action).

In the current climate of financial austerity, faith-based organisations and charities are making an important contribution to alleviating poverty and social exclusion in Britain by providing welfare support and organising food collections, by running debt advice surgeries and lobbying the government to address financial hardship.

According to the Public Faith and Finance report, many of these activities seek to be inclusive and collaborative in their approach. Rather than catering for the needs of one’s own religious community, different faith organisations, such as Sufra Foodbank and Kitchen or Midland Langar Seva Society aim to provide support for their local neighbourhood, regardless of people’s religious affiliation or the lack of it. In particular, a number of different organisations have pulled together their resources and used each other’s premises and places of worship to reach a larger number of recipients.

Last year the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims compiled a comprehensive report entitled ‘Faith as the Fourth Emergency Service’ to showcase the contributions British Muslim charitable organisations make to British society - not in isolation, but often in partnership with other religious and secular groups. In fact, the work of British Muslim charities is seen as a strong antidote to some of the negative assumptions about British Muslim communities expressed in the media.

Collaborative faith action to help and welcome Syrian refugees offers another illustration of religious values and humanitarian motivations coming together: from raising funds and providing welfare support to campaigning on issues of resettlement and asylum. Churches and aid organisations across the UK have called on the government to take action, encouraging donations from church members and providing support wherever possible. There have been some further examples of different communities working together to welcome refugees and support their integration with the help of community refugee sponsorship groups, such as the latest initiatives in Kingston.

In their recent report on ‘Faith and Welcoming’, staff and students from the University of Bristol found that a monthly attendance of a place of worship helps generate ‘warmer attitudes towards immigrants’. Their analysis of the data from the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that the actively-religious people were the least likely to choose immigration as an issue of concern, followed by the unreligious, followed by the nominally-religious. One of the potential explanations for this is the effect of the messages of openness towards immigrants and refugees which are often broadcast by religious personnel and echoed by the congregation.

In light of the declining numbers of people participating in organised religion, whether or not such inclusive practices can succeed may depend not only on the level of local resources and opportunities but also on the willingness to create collaborative partnerships between religious and non-religious members living in the same local neighbourhoods.

24 September 2018