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God and Community Cohesion – Help or Hindrance? Part 2

Mon, 24 Oct 2011 11:55 in Articles
Alan Billings

After the Northern disturbances of 2001 and the terrorist attacks of 2001 and 2005, the then government became highly concerned with the potential of religion to support or undermine society’s cohesiveness.

Religion’s positive contribution

What did it see in religion that was capable of making a positive contribution?

It saw ‘social capital’. Social capital refers to the way an individual’s capacity to affect his/her environment and life is immeasurably enhanced if he/she can act in concert with others. Faith brings people together for worship and fellowship in particular localities or among particular ethnic/religious groups, building strong interpersonal networks– ‘bonding social capital’. And faith groups reach out to other groups – other faith groups or public bodies – building ‘bridging social capital’. By building both forms of social capital faith communities strengthen community cohesion.

How does religion threaten community cohesion?

Religion can undermine social/community cohesion in three ways. First, when a community feels under threat it might emphasise religion as a marker of its identity. In the recent history of the Balkans, people responded to ethnic tensions by using religion to reinforce different political identities, suddenly seeing neighbours of a different faith as enemies. Second, when people believe the honour of their religion is threatened they sometimes see it as a religious duty to ‘defend’ it. This can provide powerful motivation for even illegal actions. Third, and most seriously, some believers persuade themselves that God abhors a plural world and they have a divine mandate to forward or impose their religion by any means, including violence.

The crucial question for our time is whether religion necessarily commits believers to strive for religious uniformity, which under certain conditions will lead some believers to take extreme action; or whether religion can contribute towards making our plural world ‘safe for disagreement’?

I want to argue for pluralism, in the sense that a plurality of faiths is both inevitable and healthy for the human race. It is, if you like, one of God’s good gifts. Pluralism opens up the possibility of different ways of life, protecting us from stultifying uniformity.

The western democratic tradition found ways of organising society to facilitate successful pluralism. In the seventeenth century, after years of religious wars, Europe needed to make it possible for Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians to co-exist peacefully. The key features of the liberal state evolved to make this possible – the rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech and worship, prioritisation of the rights of the individual. We can all agree on these, or at least acquiesce in them, whatever our religion. They make societies safe for disagreement.

Pluralism and monotheism

But can we argue theologically for pluralism, including a plurality of faiths, if we are monotheists? Let me make two brief points.

First, the starting-point for any theological recognition of pluralism has to be with the fact that our religious understanding is limited and fallible. We may look for certainty in some unchanging, infallible tradition, including a holy scripture; but this is an illusion. Scripture needs interpreting and applying to new circumstances – and in this process varied understandings inevitably arise.

Second, we should note that every religion is internally pluralistic with incommensurable differences of interpretation. Despite theological attempts to settle disputed questions, different interpretations of texts occur, leading to different ways in which religious life is lived out.

Pluralism in the traditions

Certain texts in all our traditions recognise the plural nature of the human community. In our plural society we need to consider these afresh.

According to the Torah, God called the Jewish people and gave laws applicable to them alone. Other people can have their own relationship with God without conversion to Judaism.

There is something similar in Islam. Take Surah 5.48 in the Qur’an: “...If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah...”

For Christians, St John’s Gospel says that because we cannot bear too much truth all at once, the Holy Spirit will lead us in the fullness of time to new truths. In the West, the liberal state required Christians to live with denominational differences without recourse to violence or repression. What began as toleration eventually resulted in their discovering much of value in each other’s traditions. The idea of community/social cohesion invites Britain’s diverse religions to embark on a similar journey – from tolerance to discovery – made possible by mutual commitment to or acquiescence in the contractual arrangements of the liberal state.

Conclusion

We began with a question, ‘Does religion help or hinder community cohesion?’ I have tried to show how religion and faith groups can contribute positively towards community cohesion, and how religion can threaten cohesion. What will decide whether religion makes a positive or a negative contribution will be whether believers can learn to embrace pluralism not as a threat to God’s plan for the world but as an essential element of it.

Britain with its plurality of faiths is uniquely placed to pioneer that.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

About Alan BillingsBrowse Author's Arhive

Canon Dr Alan Billings has been an Anglican parish priest in Leicester, Sheffield and the Lake District. He has been a member of Leicester City Council and was Deputy Leader of Sheffield when David Blunkett was Leader.He was a member of the Community Cohesion Panel after the riots in the NW in 2001 and a member of the Government’s faith experts panel until the election.

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