Writer for Reformer (Religious & Theological Studies student at Cardiff University)

Religion, Spirituality and Interfaith Dialogue

The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue in modern society

Religion is continuously losing its vital function as a core in societies across the Western world. People are becoming in disinterested in religious bodies, and UK church attendance is falling on average by one percent each year.

One would assume that this decline in religious participation would be acommpanied by a similar decline in belief around the supernatural and spiritual. Whether it be ghosts, auras or a soul, non-physical entities seem to appeal to the human nature of curiosity and spirituality.

Some recent Twitter polls asked various questions surrounding spiritual beliefs and opinions on religion. Regarding religious affiliations, 41% regarded themselves as “atheist/non-believer”, seconded by “agnostic/unsure” at 33%. However, in a separate poll, only 11% considered religion to be a bad part of society, with a majority of 61% saying it can be either good or bad, depending on circumstances. But, in this final poll, 55% believed in a soul, spirit or some non-physical entity, loosely followed behind by 29% of people who had no belief in this at all. Although the poll asking about religious stance revealed that the majority of the respondents were atheist, there still seems to be a streak of spiritual beliefs among respondents.

Other research suggests the same trend, with ‘spirituality’ speaking “beyond religious divides”. Professor Michael King states that one fifth of the UK population regard themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Moreover, the ‘Pew Research Center’ has released data showing that in the USA, despite religious decline, there is an increasing number of people who “feel a deep sense of spiritual peace” and “wonder about [the] Universe”.

We need to ask: are religion and spirituality explicitly linked, or can they also be completely independent of each other? The above data suggests that religion and spirituality are not necessarily linked in any way.

Religion in Society

Traditionally, Christianity has played a key role in the procedures of the United Kingdom’s formal engagements. From the Archbishop crowning the monarch, the monarch themselves being titled the ‘Defender of the Faith’, and Bishops’ entitlement to sit in the House of Lords, religion has become more intertwined with the state every century for hundreds of years. This explains why religion has always been at the fore-front of society until recently.

Despite still officially being a ‘Christian country’ with reasons described above, The Spectator now suggests that “Christians are finding out what it’s like to live as a minority” in their article ‘Britain really is ceasing to be a Christian country’. But, in modern society, public perception of religion has changed. Immoral and violent actions and events have taken place in the name of religion which has perhaps given it its hatred by many today. Most recently, Islam has been ridiculed and falsely attributed to the work of terrorists across the globe. The media has portrayed this peaceful religion as something completely opposite, and affiliated it with the actions of fundamentalist terrorists, despite the religious community of Islam condemning it at every public and private opportunity.

In 2015, The Guardian even included an article discussing a publication of data that suggested religious children are “less kind and more punitive” than secular children. It is these kinds of divisive suggestions that vilify religion, especially as parents see socialising as such a significant factor in childhood – these published results could even encourage secular parents to keep their children away from the “less kind” secular children which is absurd.

Cohesive Religious Plurality

So, if religion has been presented by the media and other institutions as such a horrendous idea, why do some people still hold spiritual beliefs? Sociologists suggest that religion is key to a functioning society and that actually is frequently used as a cohesive mechanism to bring everyone together. In postmodern society, we have seen a huge increase in the diversity of religions existing in the UK and other Western countries, offering a ‘marketplace’ of religious ideas, bodies and institutions. Does diversity of religion mean that division in society is inevitable? In 2007, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, spoke about how “disagreement and debate between religious communities may play a major role in securing certain kinds of social unity or cohesion”. His words can speak to all religious communities to show that plurality of religions in society is not necessarily a negative thing and that a multitude of religions can have a place in society.

Interfaith spirituality

For many, religion in itself is an unattractive and out-of-touch establishment in society that no longer speaks to the majority of modern people. This could be one of the reasons why in the polls we saw huge interest in spiritual belief, but not religion. The idea of a soul, spirit or non-physical entity still seems appealing to many, but why?

In hospices and hospitals, some patients have to come to terms with the notion that death is no longer so far away. On this realisation, many seek guidance, conversation, and prayer with chaplains or local religious leaders. Chaplaincy involves a lot of spiritual work and arguably less religious work. The idea of death scares and frightens many people and chaplains look to discuss these worries and what might happen after death to ease the minds of patients and their families. This profession is an example of one that does not necessarily foster religious discussions, but definitely spiritual.

To many, it may seem peculiar to call for religions to seek a more spiritual outlook so that they can be relevant in society. But rather than inward religiously-specific work, religions must look to those communities who have started interfaith work as leading examples. After the recent tragic events in the UK, we have seen incredible support for those affected by people of each (or no) religion, particularly to help those caught in the Grenfell Tower fire. It is sad that such tragedy has to be a catalyst for such wonderful work in the community, but it can be seen across the UK in places where no tragedies have taken place too. After the Finsbury Park attack, religions united in support with many religious leaders speaking out. For example Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner who called for Jews to “stand with [their] Muslim friends in solidarity and unity”.

Interfaith work is where the role of religious leaders now should be. It allows an opportunity for many people to explore and become educated about different religions, maybe even allowing them to find a religion that suits them best. Spiritual discussions should be held in religious and secular buildings, allowing conversation to extend beyond the strict confinements of one religion and broaden itself to a more ‘spiritual’ nature. Religions should still work independently to achieve their own goals and tend to their congregations, but must continue to look outwardly. This does not necessarily result in a diluting of religious ideas or a lessening of one’s own religion, but in fact to embrace a humility to acknowledge and understand other religions.

Many Religions, One Divine Reality

John Hick, a religious scholar, has brought the interfaith conversation even further, and completely borderless, in his book ‘God Has Many Names’. He carries a radical suggestion that would be criticised by many conservative religious followers on many different sides. It suggests that all religions are indeed true and each religion has revelations that are cultural responses to the “Eternal One”, one universal God-like being.

Sociology shows that religion is vital to keep society functioning well. Legalistic religious followers would suggest that religion has helped form the moral laws on which we use today. Psychologists show that religion is merely a projection of desires and wishes. Despite arguments for and against religion, the decline of the importance of religion cannot be reversed. Religion has incredible benefits for those who choose to follow them, including comfort for times of anxiety, worry, grief and stress. These benefits could be enhanced with religions engaging in both more spiritual and cross-religious discussion happening.

It seems that many people have an ‘all-or-nothing’ view of religious and spiritual beliefs. If they don’t believe in God, they do not think they belong in a religious body. However, this is where it is significant for religious followers and leaders to engage in more inclusive and spiritual discussion. These would be great opportunities to discuss beliefs and explore the leap between spirituality and religiousness.

Hick closes his book with an incredibly profound statement that should be read and acknowledged by all religious followers, in order to become more conversational with people with religious beliefs of your own or differing, and with those of no religious beliefs at all. The more society acknowledges the plurality of religions and the common ground of spirituality amongst them all, the more accepting and tolerant it will become.

“But what can be said with assurance is that each of the great streams of faith within which human life is lived can learn from the others; and that any hope for the future lies largely in the world ecumenical dialogue which is taking place in so many ways and at so many levels.”
Hick, p.136

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