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[Image] Professor Richard Farnell

Faith and Policy - Session 2, Community Cohesion and Capital

01 July 10

Listen to extracts of the conference: scroll down the page to access podcasts

Does Faith Divide? Listen here

“Community Cohesion” was a policy brand invented following the Burnley, Bradford and Oldham disturbances, observed Richard Farnell (Professor of Neighbourhood Regeneration, Coventry University). He said he came to these issues from a background in urban planning, and a personal faith conviction. He had been engaged with the issue of how faith can make a difference since the 1980s, again mentioning “Faith in the City” as a key event.

“In our society, characterised by religious and non-religious diversity, do presuppositions based on religion push us apart or pull us together?” – Richard Farnell

He believed the next few months under a new government would show whether the rhetoric of Community Cohesion had run its course. The accompanying idea of “Social Capital” had appealed to a capitalist mindset, but had been stretched to apply to the contribution to society which could be made by faith organisations.

He said he had recently completed a study on the impact made by worshipping congregations for the Oxfordshire Stronger Communities Alliance. The fundamental question to be asked is “In our society, characterised by religious and non-religious diversity, do presuppositions based on religion push us apart or pull us together?” His answer was that on balance they pull us together. For instance faith schools, sometimes accused of reinforcing division, had been shown by studies to be a positive contribution to cohesion.

“Poverty, inequality and injustice must be more central to both political discourse … and voices from religious institutions and religiously-motivated citizens need to be heard.” – Richard Farnell

In his view religious organisations could make a positive contribution but questions had to be asked. [1] Poverty needed to be more central in political discussion, since the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the western and northern worlds. [2] Faith had more to offer than a government-defined role in the public sphere. [3] There is such diversity in the faith arena that forms of engagement should expand to reflect that diversity. Concluding, and stepping outside academic convention, he speculated on what Christ would make of social cohesion.

Does Faith Make No Difference? Listen here

Francis Davis [The Young Foundation] has been an adviser to both the previous and present governments on faith and social innovation. He spoke at short notice, making clear these were his own thoughts and did not represent those of the DCLG. He began by pointing out problems in relationships and perceptions. Questions with regard to faith and cohesion were very different when applied to different contexts, and getting it wrong meant, for instance, that intervention could worsen situations, as it had with security issues in Northern Ireland and South Africa.

He dated the intellectual conversation back to Robert Cooper when introduced to Demos, and how he inspired the Blairite project to modernise and foster collaboration in a morally superior vision of the world. So post 9/11, the government in the UK had looked to a set of people who talked about cohesion, placing questions of faith as central.

“It’s belonging that motivates voluntary action, it’s got nothing to do with belief at all” – Francis Davis, paraphrasing Robert Putnam

He drew attention to Hazel Blears’ contention that faith motivated voluntary action. However, measures of faith [the belief question], as shown in Church of England figures based on the 2001 census, showed no such correlation. Rather, the Citizenship Survey does show that religious observance, ie belonging, does make a difference. This accords with the views of Robert Putnam. Getting this wrong led to a failure to spot where problems in cohesion actually arise, and he offered examples from the immigration of professional workers and of Poles.

Social, spiritual and secular

Adam Dinham [in the chair] articulated some of the charges levelled against religion: faiths do not themselves act inclusively; extremism is divisive; faith communities can bond so tightly that they cannot build bridges outward. Moving on to speak positively about the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund [now Faith Action], he reflected on difficulties that had been encountered in the funding of faith partnership, echoing the previous speakers in the first two sessions.

Debate Listen here

From the floor Greg Smith [William Temple Foundation] talked of the need to disentangle the notion of spiritual capital from social capital. In his experience volunteering can bring together a variety of beliefs under an umbrella of an ethos, but it’s murky and blurred. Brian Pearce [Interfaith Network] said religious traditions and communities are dynamic, while those who observe and sometimes attack them see them as static. We needed a shared language to address these issues. Mazin Zeki [National Secular Society] challenged any caricature of secularism as being opposed to religion. Neil Addison [a barrister] pointed out that the term “secularism” can be used in two different ways: on the one hand to talk about the separation of religion and state, and on the other there was a practice of secularism which did entail opposition to religion.

“Jesus tells us to render unto Caesar the things which belong to Caesar but Caesar’s become an amiable Father Christmas” – Jon Davies

Jon Davies [Newcastle University] depicted the state’s new diminished role as a facilitator of choice. He amused the audience by talking about the state becoming a dispenser of lollipops, and of various God-squads being keen to receive lollipops from this amiable Father Christmas! A range of other voices responded to detailed issues raised by the main speakers concerning religion’s potential usefulness in building cohesion and at the same time the complexity of the religious landscape with which government seeks to deal.

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of conference sessions have been internally edited.

Click here for the full conference summary.

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