Neal Lawson wrote an interesting comment in The Guardian this week (click here to see the piece). In a nutshell, despite being an atheist, he praises the contribution made by faith groups to building a better world. As you will see, it has sparked a great deal of debate. I want to add my own voice to the apparently rising cacophony of ideas and perspectives.
As a committed, if imperfect, follower of Christ, faith is not just a notion or an idea, it is a way of life. It shapes every major decision in my life and lies at the heart of my work and family. It shapes how I spend my money, what I do with my time, and the life choices that I have made. I am utterly convinced that faith makes a difference, because it has made a difference in my life.
Whether secularists are ready to admit it or not, the objective reality of British life is that people of faith are making a difference every day in communities across the nation. Lawson is right. The predominant moral voices have come from within faith communities. I would go even further though. Not just internationally and nationally, but at a local level across the UK and indeed across the world, people of faith daily strive to make life better.
I can point to millions of lives changed by the actions and commitments of people of faith. I can show you the Gurdwaras where the hungry are fed, the churches where the single parents are supported and the mosques where disparate and frightened communities are held together. I can take you to asylum seekers in Newcastle upon Tyne whose only help and support has been the church, or to those contemplating suicide at Beachy Head in Sussex who were literally ‘saved’ by Christians patrolling the cliff top. I can show you a memory club for the elderly in Great Yarmouth run by people of faith. There are many others. Their work and their actions show the vital and positive contribution faith has to make in Britain.
I know of many atheists who are also selfless and committed to serving and supporting the excluded. However, there is a wave or ardent atheism in this country which will not rest until in their minds the myth of God has been removed from the mind of man. I am ready and willing to accept that an atheist has a right to an opinion and that they are able to contribute to a healthy and whole society, but ardent atheism must learn to be a little less dogmatic!
At the last count, Britain was home to around 40 million people who claim some connection with Christian faith, over 1 million Muslims, 500,000 Hindus, 250,000 Sikhs and 300,000 Jews. More people still attend church services in this country than go to watch premiership football matches. It is both arrogant and wrong for atheists to tell these people that they have no moral compass, are not entitled to a voice and should not be allowed to articulate their convictions. For millions of people across the UK, faith works.
I stand ready to accept the vital and important role of atheists, secularists and people of faith in Britain. But I also want to be honest and open enough to accept that people of faith have demonstrated and articulated a strong moral position on issues such as war, eradication of poverty, fairer taxation, education and healthcare.
People of faith have much to contribute to the morality and values of a nation as diverse as Britain. I don’t want us to have special treatment – the right to a voice in the public square is accompanied by the repsonsibility to be inclusive, fair and open-handed in what we do and how we do it. People of faith contribute millions of hours of kindness to the UK. We have a huge impact in economic terms. We contribute hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours – people of faith are three times more likely to volunteer than those without faith.
The value of faith in British life is self evident – those atheists or ardent secularists who think that Britain would be better off without faith communities need to show by their actions, not just their words, what they would do. We have shown what we contribute – what do ardent atheists give us?
Lastly, we need to have a discussion about shared values, not just ideology. Things like human dignity, justice, eradication of poverty, the right use of power and accountability are not unique to the Christian faith. Many people of faith and many people of no faith share these values. I have enough confidence in my faith to know that it can stand alongside others and forge partnership and coalitions that can make a real and positive difference in the world. To suggest that because you have faith you have nothing to contribute demonstrates more the insecurity of the protagonist of such a view than it does the valid contribution of the person of faith.
I’d love to know what you think about the contribution faith makes to society – please post your comments!