Positive contribution of faith groups in social cohesion deserves greater recognition - report

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The role of faith groups in social cohesion is undervalued, says a new joint report from the think tank Theos. 

The report, 'Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief', commissioned by the British Academy and the Faith & Belief Forum, says that faith is too often thought of as a risk to social cohesion. 

There has also been a "subtly racialised understanding of faith" that tends to regard it as the preserve of ethnic minorities.

While faith and belief can be a source of division, the report argues that many faith groups play a key role in social cohesion and their contributions need to be considered in the formation of cohesion policy.

"The concern not to privilege faith groups, while also problematizing particular elements of their ethos and identity, has sometimes meant that their distinctive qualities are collapsed into a general consideration of 'community organisations' and the 'voluntary sector'," the report says.

"Faith groups in this sense are valued only as generic community organizations that can be useful in resilience planning, while anything about such identities that are particularly religious is eliminated or downplayed." 

It also notes difficulties that faith groups have encountered in working with local authorities due to fears over proselytism. 

"[M]any local authorities have also been wary to engage with faith groups – often understandably, as they have a responsibility to their constituents to uphold equalities legislation and provide safe and ideologically non-threatening services, which are often seen to be complicated by the role of faith and belief," the report reads.

"Councils do not want to be seen to favour certain groups in their funding allocation, and it can be difficult to prove fair treatment in the presence of multiple faith groups. This can lead to nervousness around the faith sector as a whole – a sense which has only been reinforced by the timbre of central policy." 

The report cites positive examples of the work being done by faith groups in their communities across the UK, like an interfaith programme run by the West London Synagogue to build good relations with local Muslims; a mosque offering English lessons; and a Christian initiative to reduce knife crime in London.

Sociology Professor at the University of Bristol, Tariq Modood said: "It is time to reassess the place of faith and belief in cohesion policy in the United Kingdom.

"As this timely report from Theos shows, social cohesion policy has often ignored the practical, positive and significant role that faith groups play in our communities.

"Moreover, where cohesion policy has addressed faith and belief groups, it has all too frequently been in the context of security concerns and the need to repair community relations where they are already broken.

"We need a more rounded consideration of the complex and distinctive nature of faith and belief." 

Phil Champain, Director of the Faith & Belief Forum, said: "Faith and belief groups are best viewed as an asset to society and not as a problem to be solved.

"This report clearly shows that integration issues are better addressed by approaching faith and belief communities in a spirit of partnership, recognising the positive role they can play in creating a more connected and cohesive society.

"Many faith groups already play a central role in bettering social cohesion while also providing crucial services in their local areas.

"By working to build better relations between our diverse communities, we can unlock even more of this potential for positive change."