Does religion strengthen or undermine social cohesiveness? That was the intriguing subject of a lecture given last night by Revd Canon Dr Alan Billings under the lovely, vaulted ceiling of Bristol Cathedral’s 850-year-old Chapter House.
Dr Billings, former director of Lancaster University ’s Centre for Ethics and Religion and a faith adviser to Government, focussed on Britain in his talk. But his analysis of how societies adapt to our modern world of mobility – of people and ideas – could apply to any nation. Reflecting on how the UK had changed during his lifetime, Dr Billings said 1940s Britain was a “mono” nation: largely white and mostly Christian. Today, Britain is “multi” – multi-coloured, multi-ethic, multi-cultural and multi-religious, with more than more than 300 languages spoken in London alone. Such big and rapid changes have inevitably caused strains; now the government is increasingly interested in religion’s role in bringing communities together.
All religions promote characteristics needed for a healthy society, said Dr Billings, such as concern for your neighbours, hospitality, civility, truth telling and peace keeping. Religions bind people together, build strong networks and tend to outlast government projects. But religion can also create boundaries between groups and, in some cases, encourage people to feel justified in forcing their beliefs on others. “The key question for our time – locally, nationally and internationally – is whether religion commits believers to strive for uniformity of belief and action,” he said.
“I argue for pluralism. Pluralism is an act of humility; it’s saying I don’t know all the answers, I can’t look at the world from God’s perspective. What will determine whether religion is a positive or negative influence on social cohesion is whether believers learn to embrace pluralism, not as a threat to God’s plan for the world but as an essential element in it.”