Saturday 20 March 2010

"Leap of Faith" — Ruth Turner writes in New Humanist

The current (March/April 2010) issue of New Humanist magazine contains an article by the Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Ruth Turner. I've had my doubts about the true purpose behind our ex-Prime-Minister's ill-conceived foundation from the start, and Ruth Turner's article does nothing to dispel them. The article, "Leap of Faith", is also available online. There's not much of substance in the article — mostly it's a hope that people of different faiths (and none — that's a first, I believe) can just get along. I've no quibble with that, but there's an underlying assumption that faith is, of course, a "good thing". Though there is a rather odd statement early on:
[Religion] is at the very core of life for billions of people, the motive for their behaviour, the thing that gives sense and purpose to their lives. Gallup predicts that by 2050, 80 per cent of the world’s population are expected to be of faith.
Is Gallup predicting an expectation of a percentage rather than an actual percentage? I'm not sure what she's getting at here.
[A]t its core religious faith represents a profound yearning within the human spirit. It answers to the basic, irrepressible, irresistible human wish for spiritual betterment, to think and act beyond the limitations of selfish human desires. More than that, it is rooted in a belief that the impulse to do good is not utilitarian but is being aware of something bigger, more central, more essential to our human condition than self. It says there are absolutes – like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being – that can never be sacrificed. Religion does not provide the only ethical framework, but it is an enduring one. 
This, at its core, is the problem: "It says there are absolutes". The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is trying to reconcile different religions that, at their core, say "there are absolutes ... that can never be sacrificed". Fine, if they all share these absolutes — "like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being" — but they don't. Not even these. What about the inalienable worth and dignity of women and gays, for example? Many religions maintain absolutely that large portions of society are of decidedly less worth than others.
There is no point in ducking this issue. Religious faith can give rise to extremism. But even if a minuscule minority of religious people use terror, there are people who hold extreme views in virtually every religion. And even where there is not extremism expressed in violence, faith is problematic when it becomes a way of denigrating those who do not share it, as somehow lesser human beings.
This is where the Tony Blair Faith Foundation does indeed seem to be ducking the issue. It's not just a matter of denigrating those who do not "share faith" — many faiths denigrate those who don't share their own particular faith, never mind those who profess no faith at all. Some religions say absolutely that those who don't share their own particular faith are on the path to everlasting damnation. Some say, absolutely, that they deserve to be killed. To me, this doesn't seem like a mere minor impediment to faiths getting along with each other.
Religious people can show how their faith motivates them to do good for others, as well as providing spiritual support and salvation for themselves. And we would all think more highly of religion, if the stories we heard were about care for the poor and the sick, the environment and society, not about prejudice, conflict and violence.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation doesn't appear to be doing much about the prejudice, conflict and violence, other than saying it would be nice if we didn't hear about it.
Of course you don’t need to be religious to be good. Those we support do so in collaboration with many non-religious agencies. But in these areas the faith community is making a contribution that, in reality, only they can make. We have trained a group of young people from five of the world’s main religions – and a humanist – who work together to mobilise communities in the West and link them with faith communities in the affected malarious regions.
This is no more than a sticking-plaster covering the fundamental disease. If the problem at the core is faith itself, it will take something other than faith to solve that problem.
For religious and non-religious alike, I believe that interfaith understanding and multi-faith social action initiatives perform a valuable function that should be welcomed. Those who seek to cause religious conflict are small in number but highly motivated, well organised and well funded. Those who want to create a more positive alternative need all the support we can get. While there are billions of people who are loyal to their own religion, there is no natural constituency for interfaith – but there needs to be.
Yes, it would be nice if different religions could get along, but the Tony Blair Faith Foundation isn't providing anything concrete to promote the formation of a "natural constituency for interfaith" because — given what religious faith is — such a natural constituency is impossible.
Without organisations that help facilitate relations between people who have different cultures and belief systems, the world is a much colder, potentially much more dangerous place. In a crowded, constantly changing and interdependent world, the Foundation attempts to bring people of different religions and none together to understand each other better, and to live peacefully and with respect, by providing opportunities to collaborate on practical projects that make a real difference to the challenges of modern life. That’s a mission I’d have thought anyone – religious or not – would be happy to support.
I'd be happy to support it, if I thought that its stated goals were achievable. They're not.


  1. Succintly put. I couldn't face reading more than a few paragraphs of that ridiculous article in the New Humanist. Thanks

  2. Why try to find common ground within all the different religions when a secular view point is taylor made for the job. 80% faitheads by 2050, really, I'm so glad I'll be dead by then.

  3. Excuse my French, but Ms Turner’s article is the biggest load of toss I’ve read since the last time I was on Andrew Brown’s Cif blog!

    Dawkins gave the TBFF the treatment it deserved at his lecture to the American Atheists Conference 2009.

  4. Thanks Ed, I'd forgotten about Richard Dawkins' AAC09 lecture. Well worth viewing again!