March Roundtable: Does religion promote social cohesion?

NEWSLETTER: Roundtable on the role of religion in Social Cohesion

In early March, the UK Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs held a roundtable with diverse actors across civil society, government, and faith groups, to explore the role of religion and worldviews in today’s discussions around social cohesion.

The roundtable aimed to create an evolving space for constructive learning and discussion around the complex topic of religion and belief and its place in society today, with a focus on how they might contribute positively to social cohesion. Emphasis was placed on configuring an understanding of religion and belief that is inclusive and captures its transformative capacity.

Eleven people joined the roundtable, which emerged from ongoing conversations that the Office has partaken in with groups and actors. The conversation adopted a reflective tone, with each contribution advancing our collective understanding, shedding light on certain topics, and raising questions for further consideration. Contributions ranged from the use of the word ‘religion’ to whether one can expect of religion certain requirements, such as being a force that can overcome division.

One participant emphasised the importance of taking a nuanced perspective when engaging with discussions on religion and belief, stating that it ‘is a mechanism, it reduces what it is to say whether it is good or bad’. Others echoed the complexity of religion and the need to encourage critical engagement with it, as doing so may enable us to ask whether the conception of religion ‘that we share in our society, through media and education, contributes to bridging gaps between religious people and non-religious people, or furthers these divisions’.

A discussion ensued about whether viewing religion as a whole, while still taking into account the complexities and nuances of different faiths, is possible.

Talk then turned to how we might focus on the shared values and ideals instilled by all religious denominations while accepting the existence of points on which people may profoundly disagree. One participant suggested the ‘convening power of religion and religious bodies’ as a capacity that ‘could be made more of’ to overcome divisive ideas. By concentrating on the shared values connecting religions and worldviews, the roundtable explored religion’s capacity to become a unifying force within society, encouraging the creation of more cohesive communities.

Focusing on how religion and belief may encourage cohesive societies raised questions including how to share a sense of community with people we have never met, ways to utilise the congregating power of religious communities, how we might engage with entire religious communities rather than religious leaders, and, more broadly, what a cohesive society even looks like. As part of the evolving and continuous development of this roundtable space, these questions will be explored further.

Motivating the creation of a space for explorations of society is the awareness that the context of the UK is changing: though fewer people identify as religious, there is greater religious diversity than ever before. In response to this reality, society is learning how diverse communities can live harmoniously together around shared values. The roundtable emerged to learn how religion and belief can contribute to these discussions.

The Office of Public Affairs viewed the discussion as thought provoking and enlightening, and aims to continue working alongside those who are interested in the topic to advance exploration into religion’s capacity to be a constructive force that builds cohesive communities.

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