University debate: fresh understanding of faith is needed
Faith is back on the public agenda in Britain and gaining a level of understanding of religion is the mission of our time, according to a recent debate at the University of East Anglia ...
Faith is back on the public agenda in Britain and gaining a level of understanding of religion is the mission of our time, according to a high level debate on Faith and Politics in Britain at the UEA in Norwich on 25 February. Keith Morris reports for Network Norwich and Norfolk.
The University of East Anglia debate, under the banner of the Keswick Hall lectures, featured Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (former Minister of State for Faith and Communities) and Aaqil Ahmed (BBC Head of Religion and Ethics), chaired by Rt Hon Prof Charles Clarke.
Senior academics at the UEA’s Interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities have come together to establish a focus for a project to promote religious literacy, including talks collaborated by Keswick Hall and the Religious Literacy Network, following concern at the level of religious literacy in our society at a time when no national broadsheet newspaper has a full-time religious affairs correspondence, and the BBC are merging their religious affairs section with Current Affairs.
Baroness Warsi told the Norwich audience of around 120, that she was born in Dewsbury where her father was a bus conductor. She studied law in Leeds and qualified as a solicitor.
She became the first Muslim woman to be selected by the Conservatives to stand for Parliament but lost in 2005 in Dewsbury. In 2007 she was made a life peer to enable David Cameron to appoint her as a shadow minister and the youngest member of the House of Lords. She later became the Minister of State for Faith and Communities.
“There is very little God or soul or what people of faith would see as really important principles in politics,” said Baroness Warsi. “The rules of the game seem very different.
“Faith has been an informer of the debate for so many of the challenges we have faced in society for thousands of years but we were starting to enter a period when this was no longer the case.” Talking about her personal philosophy, she said: “Long after government has come and gone I want to be able to look in the mirror and be able to live with myself.”
“After September 11th, I realised I was not Asian and British I was Muslim and British.”
Aaqil Ahmed told the UEA audience that his father literally drove to UK from Pakistan and his mother was a child refugee in 1947. Born in Wigan, he trained as a graphic designer, then computer aided design before moving into film. Ahmed joined the BBC as a current affairs and investigations producer and was executive producer of a major series on Islam.
“When 9/11 happened, all the work I had done to normalise Islam was wasted,” he said.
He moved to the religion department, but “The world had changed, so religious programming had to change with it.”
Ahmed moved to Channel 4 as commissioning editor of religion for six years where he ran a first-ever interview with a failed suicide bomber and was nominated for several international media awards.
When he was offered the BBC role as head of religion and ethics there were campaigns against his appointment.
“There is a lack of knowledge about religion,” said Ahmed. “We need to create programmes that people will watch, but also that people will be able to access digitally later on, about not only Christianity but other religions. My belief is that those programmes must help the understanding of the audience, they have to celebrate and mark and question faith.”
Prof Clarke asked his guests: “What do you think government and politics should be doing to deal with the position of faith in our national life and get it properly discussed?”
Baroness Warsi said: “Right from the top, there needs to be a genuine understanding that faith is important, that faith has a role to play in the public sphere. That faith can still be an informer of the debate on domestic and foreign policy.
“Faith is not always about just the number of times you go to church. It is about understanding the role faith plays in people’s lives. I would like to see policy makers more literate about faith and a normalisation of talking about faith.”
Ahmed said: “Traditional Christianity as we know it may be in decline in some form or other but actually, because of immigration and the growth in evangelical Christianity, it is not in decline but is much more diverse than it may have been 10 or 20 years ago.
“We need to understand in the public space that religion is back. In post Christian Europe religion was dead, but in the rest of the world religion was not dead. Because of immigration and digital technology and the way the world is now, the rest of the world now is with us. So we have to find a way of dealing with what religion means in policy, in society, in the media. This is a subject which is all around us. The level of literacy in many quarters is non-existent. That was fine before but it can’t go on.”
“We cannot get away from religion, no matter how much we try and think it is a spent force, it is clearly not,” said Ahmed. “To ignore it or not have something in place in academia, in government, in civil society, in the media, all these areas have to find a way of dealing with it.
“We have a moment to grasp this now because, if you look at demographics and profiles, by 2050 40% of Britain will be of a migrant background of some form or other. So religion and cultural difference is something we need to understand so let’s start planning for that now as 10 or 20 years will be too late.”
Summing up, Prof Clarke said: “As a life-long atheist I was relatively un-engaged with religion until the 1970s when I started working in inner city London where I saw that the people that motivated many of the community activities and organisations were mostly acting from their faith - because they saw it as their mission to try to do good in the community.
“I then became acutely aware as both Education Secretary and then Home Secretary that the level of thought in British government about religion and its importance was insufficient.
“After I left office, I became absolutely clear that the level of understanding at all kinds of levels of religion is just far below what it needs to be. Getting this level of public understanding of religion and a sense of what it is, is the mission of our time,” said Prof Clarke.
PHOTO: Above (from left): Aaqil Ahmed, Prof Charles Clarke and Barness Sayeeda Warsi speaking at the UEA in Norwich.