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Faith - the New Labour way

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I was asked on to the Today programme this morning to discuss my former boss’ speech on faith. It’s a well-argued and passionate speech, worth reading whether you are religious and not. I try to think of something original to say on these occasions, but this morning sitting in the Millbank studio I couldn’t get far beyond summarising the speech’s main points.

It was then I was struck by something very familiar about Blair’s analysis. The speech is a New Labour approach to faith. When he became leader of the Labour Party, Blair had two messages for his Party: ‘reform or die’ and, ‘if we do reform we can prove to a sceptical public that our values are more relevant than ever before’.

This is exactly what he argued last night in Westminster Cathedral, but this time it was a speech on behalf of the faith party. Blair’s case was that if moderate people of faith can win out over the extremists and the sectarians they can show faith to have a new relevance in meeting the challenges of globalisation.

I don’t personally share Blair’s belief that religious faith is the most powerful inspiration for altruism. However, as Roberto Unger said in his recent lecture here, globalisation will always feel threatening unless we explicitly allow it to take different forms in different places. Sensitivity to the tensions between globalisation and faith based values is crucial if globalisation is not to be experienced by people as a wrecking ball. Indeed, much of the background to recent uprising in Tibet is about indigenous people objecting to the pervasiveness in their country of the Chinese form of global consumer capitalism.

I find myself more convinced by some aspects of Blair’s inter-faith strategy. In particularly his attempt to get different faiths to put aside their differences to tackle the millennium development goals seems to me more credible than his hope that faith difference can be overcome by focussing on the common features of faiths themselves. To use a trivial example, as a West Brom fan (wish me luck at Wembley tomorrow!) if I wanted to work with a Wolves fan I probably wouldn’t suggest we start off talking about our views on football!

The RSA is an enlightenment organisation. We won’t find common ground with forms of religion which are reactionary, sectarian or anti-scientific. But many of our Fellows are people of faith (as indeed were many of the fathers of the enlightenment) and it is faith that is often the driver of the kind of ‘pro-social’ altruism we argue is a necessity in the modern world. My reservations aside, Blair’s speech is an important contribution to the debate and I hope Fellows agree that it would be interesting to ask him to write a piece along these lines for our new, improved Journal.

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  • I do agree that faith “is often the driver of the kind of ‘pro-social’ altruism”, but I wonder if you would expand on when you would consider a faith to be ‘anti-scientific’? When for example would you consider it proper for faith to challenge and even reject science on the basis of ethics and morality derived from religion?

    I would hold Mr. Blair in higher esteem if he had demonstrated his conviction to converting to Catholicism whilst Prime Minister. I recognise that this would have led to wider public debate and that perhaps such a conversion is properly a private affair.

    As we talk about globalisation and social altruism, perhaps a debate on political altruism is also indicated.

  • TB dedicated only a couple of paragraphs to science, reason and religion in his speech. It is a subject that could fill, and indeed has filled, several books. For me there is an important distinction between religiously inspired bad science; e.g. creationism, and legitimate religiously based concerns about the ethics of emerging technologies e.g, embryo research. I don't tend to agree with the latter but it is important to hear the voices of concern. On the former not only is the science bad but it is guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding. Creationists follow in the tradition of spiritualists by claim to be trying to prove the existence of God, the creation, the after life etc. But surely the whole point about religion is that it is faith based. If you could prove God existed religion would no longer be necessary. Whether we supported a proven God would be a matter of political choice not religious conviction.

  • I must admit (and rather sadly) I do not have the answers. I have pondered a great many times what place conscience, morality, remorse and the fundamentals of ‘right and wrong’ take in an atheistic world. As much ‘fun’ as might be derived from asking the creationist to explain the ‘theoretical’ geological age of the earth, try asking Darwinians if they believe any aspects of evolutionary theory are ‘faith based’. For me ‘bad science’ is that ‘well attended by apologists and the liberal intelligentsia.’

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