Kudos to the Huffington Post for running a series of blogs on religion. No one can seriously look at the world around us and say today that religion is not an important player in world events - so it is more and more surprising that so many newspapers and media outlets are cutting their religious editors. Huffington Post should be applauded for providing space to talk about an issue that is central to so much of world affairs.
Whether it is Islamic radicalisation at home or abroad, worries over Trojan Horse schools, the disturbing growth in anti-semitic incidents throughout Europe, sexual abuse scandals or gay marriage debates, religion has not had a good year. These events deserve, indeed demand, to be discussed, analysed and understood because they have a significant impact in Britain.
However, there is always a danger in letting these bad aspects of religion hog the limelight and cloud our judgement. Stephen Hull's introductory blog hinted at exactly this problem when he said:
Beyond Belief will challenge the conventional idea of religion being an accepted wisdom. We'll explore the myth that followers passively adopt the values of their chosen faith. We'll will show that positive change can be created even within the traditional, restrictive and sometimes unforgiving framework of mainstream religion.
While welcoming an opportunity to engage in those issues it is also important to challenge the implication that positive change is something which struggles to come out of religions. Traditional they may be, but mainstream religion has, and continues to have, an enormous positive impact on UK society and a great capacity to create positive change.
The scale of religious charity work in the UK is vast. It covers sectors as diverse as homelessness, marriage support, help for victims of human trafficking, foodbanks, job clubs, language classes for immigrants, debt advice, credit unions and many, many more. More than 10 million people a year benefit from church social services in the UK. Many more still benefit from the work of religious charities.
Religions are not merely charitable NGOs though, their impact goes much further than that. When religious leaders speak their voice gets heard - not many world leaders could expect to be able to get the Palestinian and Israeli leaders together for prayer and a chat. Not many have caused such waves with a scathing attack on aspects of the capitalist system. Few non-elected figures can criticise governments and expect a public response (as Archbishop Welby has had on welfare and foodbanks). 55% of people may think that atheists can be as moral as religious people - but when leading religious figures speak on moral issues the world listens. We should be thankful that that is the case, because it is a vanishingly short list of people who can force governments to talk about morality and ethics.
No one is seriously going to claim that there are no problems with religion and society today. However, it is equally important to recognise that positive change is not something that is rare and unusual in mainstream religions. In fact British society today is saturated with changes created by mainstream religion. Religion is a key driving force in British politics and society - and to be understood in its entirety you cannot ignore the good things any more than you can ignore the bad. Religion certainly is traditional, but that has been no barrier to it creating radical positive change.