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Memo to Tony: piety is not enough

Tony Blair's Faith Foundation should not encourage a mushy 'faith in faith'. We must be realistic if we want to curb the destructive power of religion and harness its good.

Tony Blair last week wrote that, free from the constraints of office, he is now able to engage with faith issues in public. In his New Statesman article, he referred to his time as prime minister and Alistair Campbell's statement that "we don't do God". When he did mention his faith, Blair noted, "it tended to be misrepresented to serve the political purposes of others." He is now working on a number of projects to promote greater understanding of the role of religion, through his Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Blair is right to highlight the role that religious belief plays in our world. A deeper appreciation of the different faiths is important and may even help us develop a global ethical approach to world problems. However, the key is to encourage better quality relationships between people, whatever worldview they hold.

For Blair, the forces of globalisation have brought different faiths together but different outcomes are possible. Religion can help deepen understanding and work for the common good, or it can be exploited to emphasise difference in destructive ways. Blair suggests that 'Religious faith – and how it develops – could be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century.'

There does seem to be an increasing recognition amongst leaders that faith has to be factored into world affairs. Blair echoes former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who wrote in 2006 that the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 had helped change her approach to faith issues: "Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion." With religious movements flourishing alongside forces of globalisation she concluded, "I have come to realise that it may have been I who was stuck in an earlier time…"

Understanding the role that religious belief can play in local and global politics is both vital and also simple common sense. Blair wants to go further and help ensure faith is a force for good rather than the reverse. He believes that the "great faiths" can together forge common approaches to ethical problems, most immediately to help reconnect the financial system with some "basic values". He seems to be searching for a global ethic to develop with globalisation along the lines proposed by Hans Küng, a Swiss Catholic priest and theologian at the University of Tübingen whom Blair has admired. Küng has argued that a global ethic should centre on a commitment to humanity and truthfulness, with a sense of responsibility. One of the greatest challenges is surely to apply such an ethic to prevent armed conflict between nations and people.

This sounds all well and good but any inter-faith dialogue risks missing the point unless the differences between the faiths (and any other wordviews) are recognised. There is common ground on some of the ethical outcomes but no faith can downplay its central beliefs. For example, one faith believes Jesus is the Son of God and dealt with sin through dying on a cross and rising again to life, while others believe he is not and did not. Such contrasts should not be politely ignored but they can be politely acknowledged and even debated. Putting religious leaders together in a room and chatting convivially can seem like progress, especially at a global or Davos level, but such dialogue must start by recognising and respecting the differences before finding the common ground. Otherwise all such inter-faith dialogue is preaching only to the converted and will bypass most believers.

World faiths are often driven by their core beliefs to work for the 'common good', often leading development in communities. Blair is right to encourage practical projects on which people of different faiths can work together and get to know each other that way. He might also focus on ensuring international development agencies and political bodies increase their own understanding of religious beliefs and practices. His projects should avoid promoting "faith in faith" as such, since it matters where you place your faith. They have potential if they focus on encouraging better and deeper relationships between people around the world.

This article previously appeared on the Guardian's Comment is Free web site.
Stephen Beer, Monday 23 March 2009
Guardian Comment is Free 23 March 2009, 23/03/2009

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