God and Community Cohesion – Help or Hindrance? Part 1

If you ask the proverbial man or woman in the street whether religion contributes for good or ill towards social cohesion, much depends on what the word ‘religion’ brings to mind; the evidence is mixed. On the one hand they might acknowledge that religion teaches people to be good neighbours and has inspired many agencies for good – the hospice movement, the Samaritans, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. On the other hand they might think of religious people killing doctors who perform abortions, and of the religious dimensions of contemporary conflicts from Kosovo to Gaza. If anything, as a result of religious terrorism, the balance of public opinion has tilted against religion.

Until relatively recently government took the view that faith was a private matter and not its concern. It focused on tensions associated with differences in race, gender, culture, relative wealth and social class. While these other factors remain potent there is now an appreciation of the role of faith in framing the identity and influencing the behaviour of individuals and whole communities.

That recognition has created the following concern: ‘How can a society remain cohesive if it consists of a number of faith groups with different theologies, values and aspirations, as well as a growing constituency that rejects all religion?’

Does religion strengthen society’s cohesiveness, or undermine it?

One way into that question is to consider what has actually happened in Britain in the last sixty five years, and the responses of public policy. These issues will be the focus of this column. They provide crucial background for a second column looking in more detail at the ways in which religion may support or undermine community cohesion.

The journey we have been on – 1945-2010

Consider for a moment two points in our history – just after the Second World War, the 1940s, and the present. In this time – roughly my lifetime, the people of this country have been on a journey from “mono” to “multi.”

Take my home town, Leicester. In the 1940s it was overwhelmingly white and mainly Christian. The few immigrants, mostly Polish and Ukrainian refugees and their children, quickly integrated and intermarried. Leicester was more or less mono-faith, mono-lingual, mono-ethnic, and mono-cultural, like almost every other UK town or city. But today it is poised to become the first English city where the ethnic minorities are a majority. Further, today’s ethnic minorities are from all across the world, though overwhelmingly from the Indian sub-continent and East Africa.

The scale, pattern and purpose of migration have changed. The first post-war immigrants to Britain were men looking for work but not planning to stay permanently. We have now gone from being a place of migrant male labour to one of diverse but settled cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities.

One consequence has been to make the question of identity more fluid and uncertain. In a multi-cultural society, we all have multiple identities and to some degree have to work at what our particular British identity now is and means.

From mono-cultural to multi-cultural in less than a generation – that is a very fast rate of change. It was not accomplished without tensions – from race riots in the 1970s and 80s to the community disturbances in northern towns in 2001.

Government responses to the challenge of this fast rate of change and accompanying tensions have developed over the years.

Government Policies

In the 1960s and 70s the assumption was that society’s tensions were essentially and literally skin-deep – they were about racial discrimination. Anti-discrimination legislation was introduced and has had a significant effect, changing attitudes and conduct. But by the 1980s and 90s it was apparent that integration in the sense of absorption was not happening appreciatively. Distinct ethnic and cultural groups were living separate parallel lives.

So public policy acquired a new focus. If minority groups were not going to be simply absorbed, their different cultures would have to be acknowledged, valued and allowed expression – on the unspoken assumption that the culture of majority Britain remained unaffected. This was multi-culturalism.

Multiculturalism had two lasting consequences – one good, one disastrous. It affirmed the right of people to have their own cultures different from the majority culture; we developed tolerance. But it also made us indifferent towards other cultures. After all, if all are equally valuable there is no point in taking any of them seriously. The majority became indifferent to its own culture as well.

The complacency of the multiculturalism era was disturbed by the riots by mainly Asian youths in northern towns in the summer of 2001, and by terrorism. Religion, which had been largely ignored for decades, now came to be seen as a potentially critical factor either in enhancing social and community cohesion or undermining it, and thus a key area of interest for government.

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

Canon Dr Alan Billings

Canon Dr Alan Billings

Anglican Parish Priest in Leicester, Sheffield and the Lake District

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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