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Do Faith Communities Divide Society or Can They Help Hold Society Together?

Armen Hareyan's picture

Social healing and faith communities

Faith communities - Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh - are creating valuable bridges and links across society, but they could do more if internal and external obstacles to development were overcome, according to new research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The report explores the expectations and realities of how faith communities connect or divide society. It recognises that the place of faith can be controversial and shows that religious belief and tradition can create division and conflict as well as engagement and understanding. Recent events in Britain and beyond have intensified long-standing debates about the social impact of religion, with violence as the ultimate expression of its potential divisiveness.

Both Conservative and Labour Governments for many years have looked to faith communities as partners in a range of social policies and regeneration programmes, often citing them as potential 'social glue'. The Prime Minister's Inter-Faith Envoy, Rt Hon John Battle MP, said:

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"Faith communities have long contributed to social policy and practice. Significantly all major faith communities are present in urban centres and poorer neighbourhoods. Moreover, if faith communities withdrew their social services provision and the state had to step in, local and central government would be bankrupt. Faith communities have become an important force for change: their strong social networks and use of 'social capital' has been vital in enabling them to achieve significant practical work."

The research uses the concept of 'social capital' - the accumulation of trust and mutual support as a means of understanding how people can be helped or hindered through different social networks. Critics of the term social capital argue that it tends to be used in remorselessly positive terms but the report concludes that, on balance, the concept does have something valuable to offer. Nevertheless, the research also found that social capital can be negative in its consequences and that faith networks are not always benign. Faith communities have not always encouraged difference or welcomed participation and debate. Power inequalities within faith communities can also make it more difficult for social networks to develop, particularly for women and young people.

The research focused on particular places and examples involving Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh people, along with those from secular organisations. Spanning English regions characterised by ethnic and religious diversity (mainly the West Midlands, Manchester and the North West, Yorkshire and London), the research identified faith groups crossing boundaries, sharing activities and building trust.

Examples of these positive impacts included the London Muslim Centre in East London and the Jewish synagogue next door working closely together to identify needs and joint approaches to solutions. Another strong example featured is a CAP (Church Action on Poverty) initiative. CAP's 'poverty hearings' unite stakeholders from all sectors with different faith groups to explore and identify key issues and solutions to poverty in local areas.

Co-author Rob Furbey of Sheffield Hallam University said: "The Government has much to learn about the ways faith based groups can work together in their local communities. Government needs to invest time and look for opportunities for informal encounters where trust can be built; and it will need to be more tolerant of different styles of working. Requiring engagement through participation in partnerships can sap the energy of faith groups and more effective ways of collaborating need to be found. Rather than social glue blinding communities together, effective operation of faith communities could be compared to machine oil, providing mechanisms through which citizens can edge together, living with and working through difference."