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Living with Difference – the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life,

December 8, 2015


This report took two years to research. The recommendations of the 144-page report are a plea for greater understanding, tolerance and knowledge of each other in a society in which religion is no longer a glue that binds, but all too often a source of division, mistrust and sometimes hatred. Baroness Butler-Sloss says that from recent events in France, to the schools so many of our children attend and, even the adverts screened in cinemas, for good and ill religion and belief impacts directly on all our daily lives. The proposals in this report amount to a ‘new settlement for religion and belief in the UK’, intended to provide space and a role for all within society, regardless of their beliefs or absence them.”

The proportion of people who do not follow a religion has risen from just under a third in 1983 to almost half in 2014, the report states. Elsewhere, the report reveals that almost half the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in England and a third in Scotland in 2001. (Though it also quotes 25% being non-religious in 2012) It says that thirty years ago two-thirds of those living in the UK would have identified as Christians while today it’s two-fifths, and that fifty years ago Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is fourth behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Only two in five British people now identify as Christian, the two-year inquiry found, while there has been a general move away from mainstream denominations to evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism have overtaken Judaism as the largest non-Christian faiths in Britain.

The report suggests ‘different social values and clearly shows a preference for Enlightenment and humanism’. It includes ‘respect for human life’, ‘peace’, ‘equality’ among these – surely these are Christian values. How religiously literate are the authors?

The report also recommends scrapping the law requiring schools to hold acts of collective worship (but they still want inclusive, spiritual assemblies – the UK Government told them that they were content with the law as it currently stands) , reducing the number of children given places at schools based on religion, and including non-religious figures on the BBC’s Thought for the Day.

There also needs to be an overhaul of how religious education is taught, it argues. Many syllabuses tend to “portray religions only in a good light … and they tend to omit the role of religions in reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice around issues such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race.”

“The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of world views and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England,” the commission said.

Dr Ed Kessler, vice-chair of Corab: “It’s an anomaly to have 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. There needs to be better representation of the different religions and beliefs in Britain today.”

It suggests that funding for hospital chaplaincies should include humanists.

I don’t know why they say that RE teachers in Scotland are better trained than in England.

Also, it isn’t true that collective worship has to be Christian.

In the media, Islam is mentioned hundreds of times more than any other religion and nearly always in a negative light.

In TV and Radio debates, people with extreme views tend to dominate in gladiatorial style debates.

I had to look up ‘Barelwis and Deobandis’.***

Most people are unaware of the positive good done by religious people, co-operating among faiths on things like foodbanks (where the government expects churches to ‘make bricks without straw’ yet tries to stop them campaigning and thus getting to heart of an issue rather than papering over the cracks).

Action for the common good is an important theme of the report – which singles out Citizens UK as an instructive example of the role religion and belief can play in challenging injustice. It’s campaigns on the Living Wage and the welcoming of refugees show the difference between a bogus secular “neutrality” and a genuinely plural public square. The Commissioners express concern that the strings which come with public funding, and the restrictions imposed by the Lobbying Act make it harder for people of faith to challenge the status quo in the way that prophetic figures such as Catherine and William Booth have done in previous generations.

Counter terrorism legislation I contributing to a further demonisation of muslims.

Professor Maleiha Malik: ‘Religion and belief in the UK has been transformed in the last two generations at the same time that religion has gained more salience in politics, law and public policy. In the year in which we celebrate 800 years of the Magna Carta, our report includes a statement of principles and values for how we all approach religion and belief in public life. We also made creative forward looking but practical recommendations in key areas such as reform of the House of Lords, education as well as controversial topic of the balance between anti-extremism policy and free speech.


However, Paul Vallely points out: The report quotes the British Humanist Asso­ciation ten times, and the National Secular Society five, and even the Humanist Society Scotland gets three mentions. In contrast, there is a single quotation from an Anglican Archbishops’ commission and a solitary reference to a report by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. Humanists are crammed in… Church Times 11.xii.15

‘Our recommendations include a focus on legal reform and public policy recommendations. We also call for much greater religion and belief literacy in every section of society, and at all levels, in order to challenge the potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification in public debates.’

recommendations include:

  • Opening up representation in the House of Lords to other faiths
  • Creating a grassroots “Magna Carta” style statement of values for public life, rather than a government-led approach to defining “British values”
  • Refocusing anti-terror legislation to promote rather than limit freedom of speech and expression.


‘religion has the potential to be both a public good and a public bad, and governments must have due regard for it.’

Funding for chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons and higher education should be protected with equitable representation for those from non-Christian religious traditions and for those from humanist traditions.

there is currently concern about the requirements of the terrorism and Security Act 2015 in relation to universities.’ Enabling free debate within the law,’ wrote Group of universities,’ is a key function which universities perform in our democratic society. Imposing on non-violent extremism or radical views would risk limiting freedom of speech on campus and may drive those with radical views off campus and underground, where … [they] cannot be challenged in environment. Closing down challenge and debate could foster extremism and dissent …The intention non-violent extremism within the scope of Prevent work in universities is a particular problem, as with the obligation to protect free speech:’ Further, universities are well placed to help the rest ‘de-muddle’ complex, controversial and sensitive issues, since they can provide space and scope for us conversations in which different and conflicting views and viewpoints can be respectfully and civilly . It is also relevant to note there are excellent models of multi-faith chaplaincy and worship areas in universities, as also in hospitals, and these too have implications for wider society.”

The idea of human dignity is a common denominator in public discourse in the West and is fundamental. It is seen rather differently, however, from the perspective of Eastern worldviews. Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, for example, consider the concept of human dignity to be too limited for balanced legal definition, and to reflect speciesism (the term has been coined on an analogy with terms such as racism and sexism) in environmental and social policy. They would prefer to consider the dignity of all living beings, not of human beings only, as the moral basis for decision-making, and the it rights of future generations not of the present generation only.

First, major religious and philosophical traditions and worldviews of humankind have many deep similarities, overlaps and commonalities. At the same time, however, there are significant differences between them. To cite a single example, it was pointed out in our consultation that non-Abrahamic faith systems are very little understood in the UK, and they are ‘forever compared to the Abrahamic faiths in order to make them easier to comprehend’.’ For example, a correspondent said,’Sikhs do not necessarily believe in a distinct God figure and the supreme being in the faith, Waheguru, is genderless. However, the translations of the Sikh scriptures, which have their origins in research carried out on the Sikh faith as part of the British Raj in the 19th century, refer to Waheguru as “God” and have attributed a male gender to all references to Waheguru even when there is no gender specific reference. This imposition of an Abrahamic viewpoint on the Sikh faith … is a disservice to the spiritual and Dharmic origins of the faith.’

participants in the teaching and learning process must at the very least be able to meet people different from themselves in terms of background, heritage and worldview. Quality encounter, however, must go beyond just knowing about different religions and beliefs, and engage participants in an interactive process of building relationships based on awareness, honesty, dialogue and trust. ….In many schools simple encounter can be taken for granted — classes are mixed in several kinds of ways and encounter is inbuilt, though of course there still needs to be continuity and skilled teaching to make the most of interaction and exchange. But when schools are separate, whether by design or default, the encounters and exchanges of learning from and through difference are much harder to create.

require state inspectorates to be concerned with every aspect of the life of faith schools, including religious elements currently inspected by denominational authorities

ensure that in all teacher education attention is given to religion and belief that is of a similar level to that which is given to reading and maths, so that every primary class teacher is confident and competent in this curriculum area, whether implicit or explicit, and so that in secondary and further education teaching all staff have general awareness of relevant sensitivities

New social media platforms have no inherent positive or negative power, for online tools themselves do not make people more or less tolerant. Their impact depends on the people who use them — and how they use them. Access to the internet allows every person to be his or her own journalist and editor since it allows organisations, including religious organisations, to transmit their own version of events without the intermediary of professional journalism — in effect, they are able to put out unfiltered propaganda and opinions. Social media sites have no editors, and users (or moderators) are expected to edit inappropriate or inaccurate content. At best they have led to a democratisation of information and the increase in user-generated content, but at worst they have resulted in an abundance of misinformation and have permitted negative content to proliferate. They challenge traditional hierarchies, since individuals communicate their own interpretations of events and texts, rather than rely on the accounts of their leaders, religious or political. But they can also therefore be used by groups to attack particular religions or their followers, or to promote extremist ideologies in the name of religion. In addition, it is easy for local issues to attract global attention in a very short space of time; for example, a controversy in the Swat region of Pakistan can have a significant impact on the streets of Bradford just hours later

The less personal nature of online communication makes it easier for information to be distorted or misinterpreted. With the huge array of online communities and the ease of finding those with specific interests, there can be a tendency to self-select into like-minded groups, lessening the opportunity to encounter those with different opinions and be exposed to unfamiliar voices.

Whilst a religious affairs correspondent operates for the BBC this contrasts many national print titles and commercial television and radio where there is a noticeable decline of us literacy which may be associated with the loss of specialists. Losing so many such specialist staff creates the danger of a vicious spiral — the editorial judgment that religion is of declining public interest leading to the loss of specialist reporters, leading in turn to a trivialising or ignorant reporting of religious issues.

It is true that interfaith organisations do not have large memberships. However, that in itself is not an adequate criterion for assessing their value, for participants carry new understandings into their communities. In this way, participation is vicarious as well as direct.

In England at national level the Faith Communities Consultative Council (FCCC) came into being, but the coalition government of 20I0-15 dismantled it on the grounds that it did not favour stand-alone forums.

that people come to know each other better; and develop stronger relationships, when engaging together on a social action projects…Yet it is not a case of either/or. Rather; both social action and structured dialogue are needed and mutually reinforce each other, with each leading to the other.

Clearly, the dynamism of local initiatives, particularly those associated with religions and beliefs, should not be taken to imply agreement with a transfer of responsibility for welfare from the state to civil society. Often, providers of voluntary services (not least food banks) deeply regret the gaps in governmental provision which make them necessary. Practical action to deal with immediate need may go hand-in-hand with campaign work to challenge the root causes of poverty and other forms of social injustice. In addition to the concept of ‘social capital’, the concept of ‘spiritual capital’ is needed, the notion of an ongoing resource for community building that offers not only a theological identity and worshipping tradition, but also a value system, moral vision and a basis for personal hopefulness and faith.’

Now the mainstream cynical view is that it’s a policy emerging from a simple fact: we can no longer afford to pay for a centralised approach to social care, so we have to find ways of helping people care for each other instead. The cost has to be shifted out of the public purse. The question is, shifted where? And churches look a good bet. The trouble is that it comes to us in this form: Churches, faith groups, we want more of what you can contribute but we want it at no cost to us. We want you to make bricks without straw

 the British story has always involved a lively debate and dialogue about how to build a common life across four distinct nations, and that each nation has always contained a diversity of religion and belief traditions. The challenge of increasing pluralism is to make that debate and dialogue as inclusive and broad-based as possible.

It is also important to recognise and address the ambiguity of the concept of integration. Religion and belief have often inspired a critique of the existing state of a society.The work of William and Catherine Booth — exposing and challenging the exploitation of workers (and in particular children) in Victorian London — is one of many examples of religion and belief disturbing and challenging the status quo. The demand to integrate must not be allowed to silence the prophetic and disturbing voices of those who challenge injustice.

National government should review the provisions of the Lobbying Act,to ensure that charities working for social justice are not prevented from campaigning as well as meeting needs.

One issue raised in the Islamic Sharia Council’s evidence to the commission concerned the performing of a Muslim marriage ceremony (the Nikah). In the absence of a civil marriage ceremony performed by a marriage registrar, a Nikah conducted in the UK is not recognised within the UK as a valid marriage.The absence of a registered civil marriage in addition to the Nikah ceremony has led to a number of Muslim women, after a Muslim divorce, being deprived of any recourse to the matrimonial financial legislation available in the UK, and being therefore treated as having been in a state of cohabitation with their partner.This has created serious injustice for Muslim women. It was considered by a Ministry of Justice working group, and led to a campaign by the National Register Office to do more to protect the interests of such women.The Islamic Sharia Council also referred to two recent cases in which the English family court had withheld the decree absolute until the husband had pronounced talaq to his wife or until the issue of dower had been resolved.This co-operation between the Sharia Council and the family courts is a helpful development.

The ways in which anti-terrorism policies operate in practice can have, however, unintended consequences. In particular, significant numbers of citizens may come to feel they are viewed as Other, namely as people who do not truly belong and cannot be trusted:them’ rather than ‘us’, suspects or potential suspects, not ordinary citizens with the same values as everyone else. Counter-terrorism policies and measures may then not only fail to achieve their objectives but may actually make matters worse, such that both terrorism and the fear of terrorism increase, and both security and sense of security are diminished. At the present time it is Muslim communities in Britain that are most directly and obviously affected.All people, however, are of course affected by increases in fear and feelings of insecurity, as also all people in a society are affected by the ways in which majorities and minorities see and approach each other

To decrease the danger of unintended harmful consequences in counter-terrorism measures against Islam-related terrorism, the following five points need to be carefully considered.

The government needs to engage with a wide range of academic theory, research and scholarship about the nature and causes of terrorism. Amongst other things, this means it should encourage and promote, not seek to limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should not loosely use words and concepts which scholarship shows to be controversial and unclear. Such words and concepts include ‘ideology:radicalisation’, ‘extremism’ and ‘Islamism’.”

The government needs to meet and engage with a wide range of Muslim groups and organisations, and to show that it understands, even if it does not agree with, the views about the nature and causes of terrorism that they hold. It cannot otherwise gain the trust and confidence of significant opinion leaders, and therefore cannot rely on their support and assistance.Their support and assistance are essential, however, if counter-terrorism strategies are to be successful. In its selection of organisations with which to engage the government must guard against the perception that it is operating with a simplistic good Muslims/bad Muslims distinction, or between ‘mainstream moderates’ and ‘violent or non-violent extremists’.

There is no causal or inevitable link between conservative or orthodox theological and moral views on the one hand and propensity to violent and criminal behaviour on the other. Nor, more fundamentally, is there a simple, one-way causal link between a worldview, ideology or narrative on the one hand and specific actions and behaviours on the other.

There is no simplistic us/them distinction or clash between western or Enlightenment values on the one hand and the values of other cultures, countries and civilisations on the other, nor between Christian values and those of other religions.

Political leaders should seek not only to promote debate and deliberation about the causes of terrorism but also to challenge misunderstandings and negative stereotypes in the population at large and in mass-circulation newspapers — they have a duty to lead public opinion, and not only to reduce fear and insecurity in the majority population but also to give principled reassurance and moral support to groups and communities which feel vulnerable to violence or discrimination.

leaders of religion and belief groups should, with appropriate training, have good knowledge of the different traditions and communities within the UK, and should encourage their members to participate in dialogue and to help develop and maintain good relations within society

that faith communities should consider opening their places of worship at regular intervals to welcome and engage with those from other groups within their locality, and should explore the possibilities of twinning arrangements with other communities

The report is online here 

 *** I discovered: ‘The Barelwis say that the Prophet knows everything that occurred and is to occur, unlike the Deobandis. The Barelwis believe that the Prophet is light and not human unlike the Deobandis. The Barelwis are very explicit in their grave-worship and openly call to it, making it clear that they believe in invoking the righteous dead for aid, assistance, rescue and benefit. As for the Deobandist they appear to proclaim Tawhid. The Barelwis are consistent and uniform in their grave-worship, they do not fall into contradiction, unlike the Deobandis. For the Deobandis refute the grave-worshippers at one time and then at another they also carry the same ideas as the grave-worshippers. Their connection to the Barelwiyyah is like the connection of the Ash’aris and Maturidis to the first Jahmiyyah. Amongst the Deobandis were those who came across the books of the Scholars of Ahl al-Sunnah in matters of Tawhidand thus, they acquired grounding in many areas of Tawhid al-Uluhiyyah and embarked upon refuting the grave-worshippers. However, some of the Barelwis, in turn, authored works exposing the contradiction amongst the Deobandis . This forced some of the Deobandis to acknowledge this is a matter of fact and that their roots are the same as those of the Barelwiyyah.’ 

Wiki was more helpful when it explained that Barlevis have their roots in Sufism whereas the Deobandi movement, was influenced by the Wahhabi movement.

India Today estimates that the vast majority of Muslims in India adhere to the Barelvi movement. Their [practices include: Public celebration of Muhammad’s birthday, veneration of dead and living saints. This consists of the intervention of an ascending, linked and unbroken chain of holy personages claimed to reach ultimately to Muhammad, who Barelvis believe intercede on their behalf with God, visiting the tombs of Muhammad, his companions and of pious Muslims, an act the Barelvis claim is supported by the Quran, Sunnah and acts of the companions, but which some opponents call “shrine-worshipping”, use of devotional music and leaving the beard to grow for men; the movement views a man who trims his beard to less than a fist-length as a sinner, and shaving the beard is considered abominable.

The Deobandi movement developed as a reaction to British colonialism in India. Some are also Sufis, though conservativism and fundamentalist theology has latterly led to a de facto fusion of its teachings with wahabism in Pakistan, which “has all but shattered the mystical Sufi presence” there.

They believe that a Muslim must adhere to one of the four schools of Sunni Islamic Law and generally discourage inter-school eclecticism.

According to a 2007 investigation by The Times, about 600 of Britain’s nearly 1,500 mosques were under the control of “a hardline sect”, whose leading preacher loathed Western values, called on Muslims to “shed blood” for Allah and preached contempt for Jews, Christians and Hindus. The same investigative report further said that 17 of the country’s 26 Islamic seminaries follow the ultra-conservative Deobandi teachings which had given birth to the Taliban. According to Times almost 80% of all domestically trained Ulema were being trained in these hardliner seminaries

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