07/12/2015 03:31 GMT | Updated 06/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Living With Difference

Religion and belief are driving forces in society today. Although there is some divergence of opinion over the extent, there is unanimity that the UK is becoming less Christian, less religious and more diverse. Whilst we are not about to return to a time when religion and religious authorities dominated, these changes raise issues that have to be urgently addressed.

The religious landscape has been transformed in less than two generations and now includes a large proportion of people who identify themselves as not religious (between 30-50% depending upon which sources you prefer), and surveys suggest this proportion is increasing rapidly. At the same time there is a growth in religions other than Christianity, presently around 10%, and in branches of Christianity, especially Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Driven in major part by migration, the resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions, especially about the negative impact of such changes. These, in turn, may feed anxieties about immigration and the fear of 'the other' that need to be addressed.

The picture is complicated further by the growth of fanaticism, by a suspicion amongst many that religion is a primary source of the world's ills, and by a blanket denial by others of the legitimacy of non-religious approaches to life. Forms of hatred such as Islamophobia and antisemitism are also pressing societal issues, not only in the UK but throughout Europe and the wider world.

Despite all this, UK public policy related to religion and belief has been piecemeal and kneejerk: a growth in faith schools, but a decline religious education standards; legal reforms which seem to target particular communities; different protections for Jews and Sikhs than for Muslims and Christians; a decline in religious specialism in the media despite the growth in news stories related to religion.

For all these reasons, in September 2013 the Woolf Institute convened an independent commission to undertake the first systematic review of the role of religion and belief in the UK today.

The report is intended to be an alternative to the ad hoc approach we have seen to-date: systematic, consistent and rational, looking at the areas of education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.

Under the leadership of Baroness Butler-Sloss the 20 commissioners from across the 4 nations of Great Britain Northern Ireland - incorporating adherents of the main religious and belief traditions, including humanism - have met frequently. They have taken evidence from a wide range of people, and have journeyed around the country participating in public hearings and received expert testimonies on social and economic, religious and cultural, legal and political, academic and educational landscapes.

There has been general agreement that it is essential not only to understand religion and belief but also to reflect on how different traditions interact with each other at local and national levels. Indeed, it is only with such an understanding that communities can be sustained.

Learning to understand and live with differences is the recurring theme throughout the report. It argues that religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation.

And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good. This in turn requires that all communities feel a positive part of an ongoing national story - what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future.

This then is the challenge, which we seek to meet in this report and which we hope will be the start of a national conversation. Understanding religion and belief is not an option but a necessity that the Government needs to factor into their approaches. The pattern of religious affiliation has changed and continues to change. Policymakers and politicians need to catch up with events, to enhance their capacity to read a most potent sign of our times - religion and belief.