The Alpha Leadership conference taking place today in London is a reminder that despite all the negative news about religion, a different face of faith is visible and real the world over. The Alpha course on leadership, which was begun under Nicky Gumbel of the Holy Trinity Church in London, has been taken by 18 million people world-wide and is all about spreading a gospel of compassion and service to others. A similar message is given out from the remarkable Rick Warren's church in Southern California where his congregation now numbers in excess of 100,000 people and his global reach extends to every nation on earth.
But such work is not confined to the Christian religion. There are extraordinary Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist organisations that do great work and show selfless sacrifice in some of the poorest and most forgotten parts of the world. 40% of the healthcare in Africa is delivered by Faith groups, notably the Catholic Church.
When we began the Tony Blair Faith Foundation four years ago, there was a lot of scepticism as to whether there really was any interest in inter-faith understanding. Weren't religion and religious people bound to be introspective and uninterested in the faith of others? Today we are active in 20 countries, thousands of people take part in our programmes and we have volunteers in over 140 nations. The truth is that the numbers of people who have Faith is growing, such growth is not at all limited to the developing world and it is simply impossible to comprehend politics in certain parts of the world - e.g. the Middle East - without comprehending the importance of Faith.
However, the exclusivist and sometimes hostile face of Faith cannot either be denied. There is a struggle in the world of Faith that reflects the broader struggle within society. This is a struggle between the open-minded and the closed-minded. I am a Christian and will remain so. This means that there are certain beliefs I hold dear. But I can, without reducing my Christian commitment, surely accept that someone else, brought up in a different tradition, holds a different set of beliefs, holds them as strongly as I hold mine, and I can respect that person and his/her right to believe as he/she does. In an era of globalisation, in which we are far more likely to share society together because society is becoming more diverse and the internet is creating a more global sense of community, the existence of such respect and mutual understanding becomes essential.
This poses challenges for politicians, but also for religious leaders. If people believe that in choosing the path of openness to others - across the Faith divide - they're somehow diminishing their faith commitment, then they will resist it. They need a Faith reason for such an open attitude.
That is why this task of openness to different faiths can't be left only to politics. It has to be undertaken, in part, by those of faith. They have to provide a) the platform for interfaith understanding and respect; and b) the theological and scriptural justification for the open mind and for investment in the good of others.
Constitutional provisions are clearly a pre-condition for ensuring minority rights. But it is here that the designing and embedding of protective constitutional provisions will not be enough. With the best will in the world, they will remain paper aspirations if religious and government leaders do not educate their constituencies in religious minority rights. This undeniably presents an enormous challenge to religious leaders: to draw from their own traditions and sacred texts the values and vision that will create this culture of democracy.
Religious education must reflect the same "inherent dignity of all members of the human family" that the United Nations spoke of in 1948 and is the basis of human rights cultures today. But a commitment to human dignity means concrete action: the training of law enforcement officers to uphold these values, teaching from primary school upwards of respect and understanding for people of other faiths, religious literacy in the world's faiths for national leaders.
The question whether the truth-claims of the monotheistic religions draw them inevitably into intransigent, non-negotiable, positions is a real one. But it is the interpretation of these truth-claims that is the problem; the repeated human desire to claim that God is on our side, that we have formed the Party of God, that our human frailty, cruelty and inhumanity is sanctioned by God. The arrogance behind that is surely the true meaning of blasphemy.
That is the reason I began my Faith Foundation. Without inter-faith understanding, the exclusivist and closed-minded attitude can assume free occupation of religious space in the public domain. This is where I, and others like me in politics, need help. It is where religious leaders must step forward and engage.
The terrain of faith and its effect on the world's geo-politics has to be taken to an entirely different, bigger and sharper level of inquiry and debate. It has to be part of civility and discussion out in the public domain, open to public scrutiny. It must be part of the curricula of our universities, in our schools, where education about others is so crucial, and in the arena of political exchange. In that arena we need to treat religion as religion not as a sub set of politics.
Finally, were this to become reality, there would, in my view, be one major and positive consequence for faith itself. It would allow those of us of faith to discuss and proclaim what our faith means to us, why Faith and Reason go hand in hand and how Faith enriches our lives and guides them, however that might be obscured by our human frailty. It would open up the potential of Faith to many who search for meaning, who are trapped in the present, but have come to regard the faith traditions as the anachronistic preserve of the irrational, the superstitious and the prejudiced. It would allow a true and rational belief in God to direct the path of the 21st Century. That is where Faith belongs. And why the world needs it.
Tony Blair is the Founder and Patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org.
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