July Roundtable: Religion and Community Life.

In July, the UK Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs held its second roundtable in a series that is exploring how insights from religion and belief systems can be harnessed to promote social cohesion.

The two roundtables have brought together representatives from Humanists UK, the National Secular Society, The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), The Jewish Museum, The Catholic Church, The Bahá’í community, Frameworks Institute, British Futures, The RE Council for England and Wales, and an academic from Oxford University.

The second roundtable built upon the first by providing a space to examine the state of community life within the UK and how well adapted prevalent notions of religion and belief community are for contemporary society. It also explored how insights from belief systems could help to foster a greater sense of community cohesion.

The discussion was far-reaching; each participant contributed to creating a space for learning and reflection. What became apparent is that community life has changed over the last few decades, increasingly becoming more fragmented and distant due to changes in the economy, work and education, developments in technology, and the movement of people.

Despite these changes, the group concluded that the need to belong to a community is as present as ever, and that this latent community spirit continues to exist, and often revealing itself after crises such as Grenfell Tower. Given that this spirit still exists, the participants explored how it might contribute to the development of a pattern of community life that provides a consistent network of support and friendship, rather than being utilised only in times of crisis.

It became clear from the discussions, that for religion to be a cohesive force in an interconnected and diverse landscape, it must uphold and fulfil certain requirements. One participant observed that one of these requirements might be “a need for theological models that deal with otherness”. Other points included a need for effective mechanisms for dialogue, both within and between religious communities, in which there is freedom to explore challenging questions. In addition to this, it was noted that the principle of humility also applies to religious communities. By recognising that they may not have the answers to all of the challenges that society faces, religious and belief communities can collaborate, gradually learning to collectively overcome societal obstacles.

The group then discussed how each religion and belief community holds insights that can be drawn on in efforts to establish stronger community life in the UK. As such, a few members of belief communities shared some thoughts from their own traditions. One participant highlighted that belief communities often uphold ‘a sense of human worth that does not need to be earned’. Another agreed, emphasising that many faith communities see the ‘inherent dignity in all people’. Viewing people as inherently worthy, and therefore also viewing each individual through the lens of potentiality, allows each individual to be seen, and to see themselves as, active protagonists in a process of community building.

The roundtable also explored how to motivate this change in community life. One participant suggested that faith communities are able to tap into the roots of motivation and fuel hope in a longstanding manner. Placing one’s own progress in relation to the progress and wellbeing of others acts as a sustainable source of motivation – viewing many hurdles as challenges to be overcome rather than as overwhelming obstacles. The group then considered this alongside other communities that might provide a sense of belonging.

Notwithstanding the numerous challenges related to religion, the group aims to analyse it in a way that considers the profound potential religion has to be a source of hope and cohesion. Emphasis is placed on the need for religion to be viewed and structured in a way that is centred on its capacity to unify.

The Office of Public Affairs found the discussion to be insightful and wide-ranging and is particularly interested in the theme of overcoming religious otherness. The second roundtable of the series built upon the first and we look forward to continuing along this trajectory.

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