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Fight religious illiteracy in the élite

2012 January 27
by Paul Vallely

It is amazing what a blindspot this country’s secular liberal Establishment continues to have about religion despite several decades of extraordinary global events which have repeatedly demonstrated the continuing influence of faith upon world events. The revolution in Iran, the collapse of communism, the international terrorism of 9/11 and most recently the Arab Spring – all of these were impossible to comprehend, or indeed to predict, without some understanding of religion.

So it’s interesting to see a bit of a fightback beginning. This week the thinktank Theos announced a series of The Westminster Faith Debates to take place from February to April to look at key areas like identity, schools, welfare, religious freedom and radicalisation. They are based on the £12m research programme Religion and Society led by Professor Linda Woodhead at Lancaster University. Their aim is to educate mandarins and diplomats in this area.

And they need educating. Whitehall is stuffed with religious illiterates, to borrow a choice phrase from Cristina Odone, the former editor of the Catholic Herald who has recently launched a new networking website called with the avowed purpose of “fighting the new atheist intolerance”. That intolerance is now located among the civil servants, politicians, journalists and academics who make up our mainstream elite.

The two megatrends that have shaped world politics for the past 30 years says, Fr Raymond J de Souza on the FreeFaith site, were the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in January 1979 and the first pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II, later that same year, back to Poland. The aftermath of those two journeys were the fall of communism and the rise of Islamism, both of which caught Western diplomats and politicians by surprise because they had no understanding of the underlying religious phenomena.

Anyone who recalls the detail of the memo written by the official Foreign Office team preparing for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010 will know what he means. It was a staggeringly sneering document which included in its “brainstorming” suggestions that the pontiff should open an abortion ward, launch his own brand of papal condoms and bless a gay wedding. Such attitudes extend well beyond the Foreign Office, as anyone who has been inside a newspaper or broadcasting office will tell you.

A healthy society requires a profound and ongoing dialogue between faith and reason, Pope Benedict pointed out when he arrived in the UK. “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident,” the Pope said. Politics and religion need one another to exchange their strengths and cancel out their weaknesses.

David Cameron, in his response to the Pope, gave some sign of understanding that. Elsewhere politicians have been more explicit. Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, spoke recently at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and emphasised the “union of values” shared by the Church and the European Union, with a common understanding of the solidarity between individuals, genders, countries and faiths which emerged from the ruins of the totalitarian ideologies of the mid-twentieth century.

Tony Blair recently gave a speech at the Catholic University in Milan in which he suggested that his work on the Middle East peace process had taught him: “There will be no peace in our world without an understanding of the position of faith within it”.  What was needed, he concluded, was “religion-friendly democracy and democracy-friendly religion”.

That would be good for the Middle East. But it would be good for the rest of us too.

Church Times

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