The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Faith in Britain: It’s time for religious communities to look outwards

11th February 2014

Yossi Ives, Founder and Chief Executive of Tag Institute for Social Development, argues that faith communities have more to give to society than just faith

There are those who view religion as a force for good and wish to see it play a greater role in shaping society, and there are those who view religion as a malign and wish to see it forced to the margins of society. Here I shall argue for a third way.

There are those who argue that like it or not religion is going to be an increasingly significant influence on the world and we need therefore to engage with it. I say yes, but not necessarily for that reason.

There are those who wish to see ‘faith with its sleeves rolled up’ (Singleton, 2013) or even as ‘the home we build together’ (Sacks, 2009). Here I shall argue for faith with its thinking cap on.

In our efforts to create a high-functioning, optimal society in which people and communities thrive, we should look to all suitable sources for insight. While the particular religious beliefs or cultural affiliations of individuals and faith/ethnic communities are quite possibly only meaningful to those of the said religion or culture, I contend that there is much within those religions and cultures of relevance to all people.

Even without adherence to the tenets of a particular heritage, there is surely much to be gleaned from its substantial experience and generations of wisdom. If we wish to benefit from this reservoir of ideas – and surely we need to – then we have to learn to glean the universal from the particular.

We also need to encourage and facilitate those with the greatest access to and familiarity with those resources to recognise this as an opportunity to contribute to the public good. In short, we need faith communities to get in on the act of thinking our way out of our problems.

The Jewish tradition in which I am rooted is steeped in scholarship and practice and contains within it a vast resource of insight – both theoretical and practical – on many key issues that could help us to create a more effective society. To date, this expansive store of knowledge has been largely overlooked, even within the Jewish community.

While Jews as individuals have played and continue to play a leading role in developing the academic disciplines and professions that shape society, the same cannot be said about the faith-heritage to which they affiliate themselves. Jewish ideas are largely absent from the social sciences and its affiliated disciplines, to the detriment of both.

I spent ten years of advanced study in yeshiva, colleges of traditional Jewish learning, and a further ten years at university. At the yeshiva I did not encounter a single idea from the social sciences and in university I did not encounter a single idea from traditional Jewish thought. Both believe what each other has to say to be irrelevant. This is a terrible waste; I am convinced they have much to gain from each other.

I believe I am a better social scientist for being a rabbi and vice versa. Everyone can gain when these substantial traditions interact. We are being presented with a false dichotomy between religion and secularism – that is exactly how the fanatics on both sides wish for it to stay. We are told that ours is ‘a secular age’ (Taylor, 2007), while others declare it a ‘post-secular age’ (Habermas, 2008). I’m not sure it is either. Religion has always played an important role, just that many of us chose to ignore it, and having rendered invisible we imagine it non-existent.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists (2013) makes an impassioned if not always plausible case to take another look at what religion can teach people regardless of their faith. Perhaps we could borrow the name of the Dalai Lama’s book (2011) Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World to suggest that religion can make a rich contribution to ‘secular’ ethics.

Faith heritages have valuable insights and practices that could be suitably transferred to a wider context. I am keen to see my own community take seriously its opportunity, I would also say responsibility, to assess and articulate what social models and insights from the Jewish heritage could benefit society at large.

I think there is a huge amount to be done – and a huge amount to be gained – by stimulating interest around the ideas that faith traditions can offer if we learn to extract the universal from the particular, to uncover the non-particular riches contained therein. Understandably, there may be some unease about what could be imagined to be cheerleading for the virtues of a particular faith community. We need to get over our squeamishness for the sake of a greater good.

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