In the winter season, faith becomes more visible and can take on a more prominent role in peoples’ lives: through Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, and—in late November—the Sikh commemoration of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, whose opposition to religious persecution and refusal to abandon his faith led to his execution.
Guru Tegh Bahadur’s belief in religious freedom leads us to think about how faith-based organisations have contributed to religious freedom and faith diversity in the UK—crucial at a time when recent events in Paris, Syria and London, have pushed questions around the role of faith and religion in our society to the front of peoples thoughts.
Faith-based charities make a significant contribution to enhancing religious freedom in the UK through the creation of public and private spaces for positive inter-faith exchanges, as well as a shared commitment to social action. The increasing diversity of British society has led to a proliferation of ‘deliberately inclusive’ faith-based charitable initiatives such as Mitzvah Day, Sewa Day and most recently Sadaqa Day. These processes of shared action, experiences, and values help strengthen religious freedom, changing minds and attitudes as well as laws.
Concerns persist amongst the public, donors, and policy-makers regarding the potentially coercive power of faith-based organisations and the vulnerabilities of their beneficiaries to proselytism and attempts at conversion. Yet recent studies indicate that these concerns do not fit with the actual practices of faith-based organisations in Britain, many of whom are highly conscious of these dynamics and have no interest in ‘forcing’ their beliefs on beneficiaries who do not share their faith. There is, moreover, a danger that overemphasising these concerns results in denial of the agency of beneficiaries. Many beneficiaries welcome spiritual discussion and guidance as part of the spectrum of services available to them.
While religious organisations have been the voice of established authority and control, they have also served as prominent voices of protest that challenges such authority. Therefore, the mandate to prevent faith-based organisations from imposing their beliefs on others risks spilling over into restrictive demands for integration and suppression of public expressions of faith—constituting a form of oppression, particularly for religious minorities.
While the British government places relatively few restrictions on freedom of religion in the UK, social hostilities on religious grounds remain high. There is a need not only to guarantee state protection of religious freedoms, but also to promote a culture of respect for faith differences, embedding freedom from faith-based violence and intimidation at the social level. A recent Theos report highlights the necessity of sustained open dialogue both between faiths and those of no faith.
All these factors require greater understanding. NPC is currently conducting a study of faith-based organisations in order to gain a clearer picture of how faith affects the way they conduct their work, their impact, their partnerships, and how they are responding to the growing diversity and secularisation of British society.
As we look back on some of the darker events of the past year it is imperative that we understand the vital role faith-based organisations can play. This includes building spaces for diverse religious expression, fostering inter-faith dialogue, and providing outlets for staff, volunteers and beneficiaries to engage with their own faith and the faith of others.