Friday, 15 January 2010

Why we should get rid of 'Faith Groups'

In our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, a new phrase has entered our vocabulary: Faith Groups. Its way of describing religious groupings, those who apparently have a ‘faith’ that influences the way they view the world and motivates what they do – it includes Christians (like me), Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists (kind of), Sikhs etc. Sometimes they are called ‘faith communities’ but the idea is the same, and it is common government-speak including the report on “Faith Groups in the Community - Working Together: Co-operation between Government and Faith Communities” in February 2004.

You might think this was good news for religions – belated recognition for their important role in society, and encouraging them to make a greater contribution. It has to be said, much of the language about faith groups does verge on the patronising, but that’s not what raises big questions about this designation. The question is, what counts as a faith group? And what are all the others? What about secular humanists, atheists, socialists, communists, conservatives? What are they? They also are united by certain core beliefs about human life and its purpose, are motivated for action in society, and attempt to build a better one by those beliefs. So what are they, if they are not Faith Groups? Reason groups? Truth groups? The problem with ‘Faith Groups’ is that is boxes religions into a special category, as if religious people alone have a ‘faith’ (something which we assume to be a lesser form of knowledge than ‘proof’ or ‘reason’) and the others are based on something other than faith. Now of course atheists, conservatives, socialists and secular humanists have faith. All of them adopt certain contentious beliefs about the world that go beyond the available evidence such as that we are alone in the universe without any superior being (atheism), that minimal government is the best way for society to function (conservatism), or that some kind of state intervention to force equality is necessary for social justice (socialism). All of these are contested notions, adopted by faith, and none the worse for that. This is not to belittle these positions or to argue that they are false, but simply to call them what they are: positions adopted through faith.

So if the designation ‘faith groups’ is of little use to us, how then should we speak? A better way would be to think of the different ‘narratives’ or ‘stories’ we tell about the world that determine how we behave within it. For example, Christians are not people who somehow adopt a ‘faith’ while secular humanists don’t. They just live by a different story. Both Christians and secular humanists have a story, and, if they have any integrity, seek to live by them. The Christian story tells us that we are made by a good God who created the world, that evil subsequently spoiled the goodness of creation, that God is working to redeem and bring it to completion, and through Christ we can be saved from our sins and become involved in that work of redemption. Again this isn’t to prove the truth of this story over against others. It’s simply to say this is the story that Christians live by. Everyone lives by a story. Everyone has a faith. So let’s stop pretending that only some do.

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