I wouldn’t start from here
Zehra Zaidi’s piece in the Guardian about the latest daft idea from Hazel Blears & Co is spot on. The constant harping on about “community cohesion”, which really means trying to get Muslims and others to all get along, is ridiculous. Can’t they see that the proliferation of faith schools is an obstacle to social harmony?
There’ve been many “consultations” that were ostensibly about achieving harmony and understanding, but all they do is exaggerate the differences between people, rather than encourage them to discover what they have in common. Pixie-Dust for Brains Blears is behind the Government’s “Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side: A framework for inter faith dialogue and social action” consultation – another waste of time. In the foreword, she writes:
We have in recent years seen an increase in dialogue between different faith communities which is breaking down barriers, building understanding and strengthening relationships. We have also seen the positive changes that collaborative social action has brought about within our local communities. This growth in ‘active faith’ has seen faith communities putting into practice their values and teachings to enrich and benefit wider society.
The consultation document is full of erroneous assumptions, one being that there is something special about the values of people in religious “communities”. Not true. Some of those “values” do not benefit the wider society, while any positive values are little different from those that many socially responsible atheists have.
One of the questions in the document is,
How can the lessons learned and experience gained from inter-faith dialogue and social action help to build relationships with people from different communities more widely?
A leaflet being circulated in Humanist circles by BHA member Richard Hogg points out,
The question is based on a false premise. Consider the fishing analogy:
I’m a member of a fly-fishing community. We don’t live in the same street, but are scattered about our town. We regularly meet with fly-fishers from nearby towns to share our interest but we rarely engage with groups who enjoy different types of fishing, and there’s been a long history of animosity between the different types of fishing groups, so an Inter-Fishing Network is set up.This common interest in fishing in general enables the different fishing groups to work out ways to understand each others type of fishing, and whilst someone that loves deep sea fishing may never want to go fly-fishing, they can see why someone would want to, and thereby they gain a level of respect for other types of fishing even if they would never engage in other types of fishing themselves. With the success of the Inter Fishing Network bringing people of different fishing interests together they decide to use this knowledge to engage with the wider community. However, this fails miserably. Why?
Whilst people in the wider society may respect an individual’s choice to engage in fishing, the wider society has no interest in fishing – it is irrelevant to them. They do not need to understand or appreciate fishing to carry out their employment activities, to do their weekly shopping, to socialise with friends, to carry out their voluntary activities for a local charity, etc. Fishing is a personal thing for people who like fishing and want to meet up with others to discuss fish or fishing.
Bringing people together who have an interest in something, albeit with differing views, can be done as they’re all interested in the same thing. However, the thing that brings those people together, that common interest, cannot be used as a means to engage with the wider society, if that wider society doesn’t have the same level of interest in whatever it is. It’s better to engage people of all faiths and none in matters that concern us all, other than religion or beliefs that separate us, rather than unite us.
On 22nd October, Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource‘s Forum of Faiths meets in Ipswich. We’re informed:
It is intended that the Forum of Faiths becomes a channel of communication between the statutory bodies and the faith communities as well as providing an ongoing link between the faith communities. This is a natural development for inter-faith work in Suffolk and is also totally in line with the vision of a recent document published by the Department for Communities and Local Government…
Yes, you’ve guessed it. It’s “Face to Face” again.
We’ve been involved with SIFRE from the beginning, mainly because it provided opportunities for Humanist speakers to visit schools and other organisations with an alternative point of view, but (speaking for myself) the relationship is getting rather strained.
For one thing, we’re not a “faith”; “faith” is anathema to us. We’d prefer the correct legal term, as a description of the various groups involved with this sort of education and dialogue, of “religion and beliefs”.
For another thing, we can’t condone the trend towards treating religious organisations as special groups, given special status. The people who represent these groups are unelected and unaccountable. Why should they be given privileged access to government at all levels? We all have the same right to lobby our elected representatives and vote them in or out of office, as individuals. That’s how secular government works. There are all sorts of special interest groups that lobby for a variety of changes, but none are given special status, except the “faiths”. We need less of this nonsense, not more.
Just one example of the way it works is that SIFRE has been invited to send one (only one!) representative to our Local Strategic Partnership, to represent all the faiths in the area. How crazy is that? One person can’t represent all the faiths, which differ widely in their beliefs and practices, and even if he or she could, why should religious organisations have a say in secular affairs?
So, where do we go from here? Ideally, we should scrap all the inter-faith community cohesion nonsense, and start from somewhere else.