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Harnessing the constructive power of religion – Cohesive Societies review

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The Faith & Belief Forum

09 / 11 / 20

A review of our by Cohesive Societies report by Karl Wightman, Programme Manager, Office of Public Affairs of the UK Baha’i Community

The Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief paper, examining the role of religion and belief in cohesive societies, is a welcome contribution to the conversation about social cohesion and the role of religion in society.

The Bahá’í community has long believed that the primary purpose of religion is ‘fostering unity, by harmonizing disparate elements and nurturing in every heart a selfless love for humankind’. This is a vision that the community around the world has been committed to learning to apply through both day-to-day activities and interaction with wider communities.

As such, it is heartening to see the report highlight the need to prioritise social cohesion as a vital aim in its own right. Indeed, it seems as though our capacity as a society to overcome crises and adversity would be significantly greater with stronger ties of fellowship within and between communities, at the local, national and global levels.

We applaud the boldness of the report in drawing attention to the importance of faith, and specifically of prayer, in building “local spiritual capital” and a “stockpile of hope, activism and purpose”. The desire to support communities in this way transcends the political and economic concerns of the day and runs deeply within religious and faith traditions. Harnessing the constructive power of religion is something that the Office of Public Affairs of the UK Bahá’í community has been keenly trying to understand.

The Bahá’í community has been systematically learning how religious values can inspire and empower communities to take charge of their own developmental destiny, collectively address their social and economic needs, and build strong, lasting bridges with all members of society. Bahá’ís across the UK have been striving to reach out to and work with their neighbours to put these very ideals into practice. One of the key beliefs animating this endeavour is the understanding that in order to progress as a society or community, each and every individual, from all backgrounds, whatever their faith or belief, must be included in the process of advancement.

In light of this belief, last year the Office hosted a series of roundtables that aimed at exploring the conditions that would enable religion and belief to be a source of social cohesion within society. In doing so, we engaged a diverse range of individuals, representing a wide array of organisations, from faith and belief communities to think-tanks and educational organisations. Within this space, this diverse group strived to understand our shared social reality together.

Initially, the group considered the ways that religion is typically explored within society, discussing how these narratives can be enabling, but also constrain our conceptions of belief communities. The group went on to consider what constitutes a community, and how religious beliefs and practices not only support greater cohesion in society, but also contribute to shaping these communities. During this conversation, it became clear that that it is vital to broaden the parameters of what it means to “belong” to a community in order to truly embrace the increasing diversity of society.

In addition, these discussions facilitated a collective consideration of what is required of religion if it is to contribute towards social cohesion. Religion may need to meet certain criteria if it is to build bridges, rather than cause divides. Some of these might include: theological ways of valuing difference, practices of intra- and inter-religious dialogue, a collective sense of humility when engaging with an ever-evolving world, value placed on diversity within faiths, and an attitude of enthusiastic collaboration with other communities.

By drawing on these discussions, and on the experience of the global Bahá’í community, what becomes clear is that the parameters within which we discuss faith and belief have a deep impact on our societal capacity to benefit from the insights enshrined within religious sources.

This report highlights the urgent need to reconceptualise religion, and the way we as a society interact with it, by understanding it as a potent resource for “spiritual capital” and as a reservoir for moral encouragement. As a result of this reconceptualisation, social cohesion policy and reality could drastically change for the better. It is heartening to see that the results of this report are consistent with the hopeful and constructive conversations that the Bahá’í community has long been involved in.

Rather than just being seen as a cause for concern, as sources of voluntary services or even as networks to be tapped into, religious communities should be seen as willing and cooperative partners, assisting our society to move forward together. This report is a much-needed reminder of the capacity of the oft-overlooked sources of knowledge and practice that can readily be tapped into and could enable our society to flourish.

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