Hands across the gap
AS I suggested in a recent posting, Pope Francis said something quite profound, and provocative, when he declared in his folksy way that the atheist and the believer could “meet each other” by doing good. In almost every democracy, there is a lot of hard debate about the terms on which people of different religions and none can or should co-operate to achieve common goals, which might be social, political or humanitarian.
A British think-tank, Theos, is plunging into this discussion. Theos is a body that commands attention, and not just by virtue of its name, which is the Greek for God. It was launched with some fanfare in 2006 by the leaders of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. From an office a stone’s throw from the Palace of Westminster, it opines on the public role of faith in a country that combines Christian institutions and public symbols, an intensely secular intelligentsia and a messy multi-faith reality.
The body’s latest report is a clarion call for “political friendships across difference” in which people of various faiths and no faith form local coalitions to attain their ends. The author, David Barclay, starts with a couple of points on which many secular thinkers would agree. Public endeavours of any kind are likely to be coalitions, in a country where not only churches but political parties and trade unions have seen a tumble in membership. And “state multiculturalism”—helping religious and ethnic groups to assert their distinctiveness—is widely seen as a dangerous failure, at risk of turning the nation into self-contained blocks that hardly touch.
The answer? People with contrasting ideas about the ultimate can get to know and respect one another by working together to change everyday reality in big and small ways. The author acknowledges his debt to the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who has said faith groups should stand “side by side” at a common coal-face rather than face to face. But in his report, “Making Multiculturalism Work”, Mr Barclay goes on to challenge some secularist thinking about broad coalitions. He insists that religious partners in any project should be free to talk about their motives; otherwise friendships will be superficial. As an example of secularist thinking which in his view demands too much, he cites a contributor to a Labourwebsite who puts her case like this:
….the question for me is, would I be a friend with someone who thinks my sexuality, or right of access to contraception or abortion is inherently wrong? I would not. Why are making these exceptions seen as not a problem when we deal with faith groups?
Mr Barclay says this seems “a truly extraordinary view of friendship” because it could ultimately “rule out the possibility of being friends with anyone who disagrees on anything of fundamental importance.”
Which point of view is closer to real life? It is both difficult, and sometimes necessary, to establish friendships with people whose views on fundamental matters are at odds with our own. What makes the difference, in general, is the strength of the incentive to collaborate. Often the best glue for a coalition is the negative sort—the desire to overcome a common foe or to stop something undesirable. The biggest street demonstration in British history (against the imminent Iraq war, in February 2003) was mainly organised by two small, pragmatic groups whose world-views are utterly at odds: the (Trotskyist) Socialist Workers’ Party and the Muslim Association of Britain. Women in hijab marched alongside comrades who sported piercings and tattoos. In the local politics of several European cities there is ad-hoc co-operation between devout Muslims and gay-rights advocates; both groups gravitate towards city centres, and both feel historically disadvantaged.
Against a common adversary, almost any combination of human beings can be friends. In the street protests now raging in Turkey, bohemians and liberals march alongside some devout Muslims (although it’s likely that more devout folk back the government), Turkish nationalists share the street with advocates of ethnic minorities. Rage with the existing order can be a wonderful unifier. Bringing diverse people together for some more constructive cause (like building a shelter for the homeless) is harder, but not impossible if everybody really wants to get the job done.
This article appeared in The Economist