Barney Leith Blog #8: Diversity or Unity or Both?

Barney Leith Blog #8: Diversity or Unity or Both?

Barney Leith

For some years I chaired a public policy group called the Religion and Belief Consultative Group on Equality, Diversity and Human Rights (RBCG). The group comprised representatives of the major churches and non-Christian faiths, the Inter Faith Network for the UK (IFN), a few faith-based social action organisations, and two atheist organisations – the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS).

Religion & Belief Consultative Group

The RBCG came into being at a time when the UK Government was preparing what became the Equality Act 2006 for its passage through Parliament. The legislation defined six equality “strands”, one of which was “religion or belief” (the others are race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and age).

The RBCG continued its work after the Act came onto the statute book and as the government moved on to prepare what became the Equality Act 2010 for its passage through Parliament.

The RBCG provided both a forum for its members to keep in touch with developments in the equality legislation and a link between the religion or belief strand and the Government. Towards the end of its existence it worked closely with the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Canterbury Cathedral, Mother Church of the Church of England

The RBCG collapsed in the end because the representatives of the mainstream churches (Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, Methodist and other Free Churches, and the Salvation Army) decided that they no longer wished to sit around the table – which was mostly the EHRC table – to discuss equality issues with organisations whose intention, they considered, was to exclude religion from the table.

As the  churches’ representatives wrote:

For us, the problem lies in the conception that a single body can ‘represent’ the diverse approaches and philosophies brought together under the Religion and Belief strand. Whilst we recognise that Religion and Belief are held together in European as well as British politics and practice, it is our considered view that effective and genuine consultation between the EHRC and faith communities cannot be effectively carried out through a group that expressly includes  bodies whose public commitment is to exclude religious faith from the public square,  There should be consultation, of course, with all those affected  by the religion and belief “strand”, but as the strand includes these mutually incompatible stances, in our view  it is better done another way.

The churches were at pains to stress that this did not signify a refusal to engage in conversation with secularist organisations nor that they were dropping out of inter-faith dialogue.

… we emphasise very strongly indeed that this action in no way reduces our commitment to interfaith dialogue – or indeed to dialogue with other strands of the equality agenda.

Secularist organisations

The existence and modus operandi of the RBCG offer some interesting insights into what the much-loved Bahá’í principle of unity and diversity can mean in practice.

Before commenting on this, however, I need to say something about the two secularist organisations that were members of the RBCG and amongst the most faithful (if I can use this term of those who reject the idea of faith) attenders.

The National Secular Society, which has been in existence since the 19th century, exists to oppose any role for religion in the public realm – “challenging religious privilege”, as its strapline proclaims. It does not, as far as I am aware, lay claim as an organisation to a belief “system”, although its website sets out a number of general principles (which are soon to be replaced by a secular charter).

As a Bahá’í, I disagree profoundly with some of these principles; others of them, on the other hand, I can accept.

The British Humanist Association also has some principles with which Bahá’ís would not have an problem – although, as in the case of the NSS, there are some with which Bahá’ís would profoundly disagree.

The BHA website identifies Humanists as “atheists and agnostics who make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values”. The BHA is…

…the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. We promote Humanism, support and represent the non-religious, and promote a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Curiously for an organisation which repudiates religion, the BHA seemed to want nothing more than to be treated as a kind of religion. (They offer what can only be described as pseudo-religious services: wedding and partnership ceremonies, funerals and memorials, naming ceremonies, and chaplaincy.) Their representatives at RBCG meetings constantly complained about what they saw as the privileges accorded to religious organisations, but clearly wanted to be in the same position. The representatives of the various religions, on the other hand, did not accept that they had a particularly privileged position in the scheme of things, but argued that religions, structured and embedded as they are in local communities, were in a position to meet the needs of many more people than could be reached by government schemes. The Humanists, they pointed out, lack that kind of structured and embedded relationship with local communities.

Diversity – but where’s the unity?

At some point in the 20th century the UK discovered diversity.

Britain is a culturally diverse country.

Major influxes of immigrants from former colonies in the years since the end of the Second World War have stimulated irreversible changes to the composition of British society. Not all of the white majority population welcomed these changes and there were some extremely violent reactions against the immigrants.

As the new residents – and ultimately citizens – of the UK found their feet and began to participate in the UK’s political processes, pressure grew on successive governments to legislate to outlaw racism and, over time, other forms of inequitable treatment of various segments of the population.

“Diversity” was the name of the game. Here were all these people who had settled (or whose parents or grandparents) in the UK from many parts of the world. They looked different, they had different religions, culture and customs. Who was to say that one was better than another? Or that the religion, culture and customs of the “sitting tenants” should be privileged over those of the newer residents?

This relativistic post-modern perspective morphed into a political ideology known as “multiculturalism” that came to inform policy decisions made by central and local government. Identity politics ruled the roost and people were (are) dealt with as members of a set of categories – race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and so on – more than they were as individuals.

One prominent academic and parliamentarian said, approvingly, that Britain was a community of communities. The boundaries of these communities were seen as impermeable. If you were a Bangladeshi migrant living in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, your needs and the treatment you received from government were defined by your membership of that category.

Following disturbances in a number of cities in the north of England in 2001, academics and politicians began to wake up to the problems that were emerging from the kind of segregated living that multiculturalism had given rise to. Government policies had reinforced the human tendency of migrants to live around people “like them”, to reproduce to some extent the lives they had lived in neighbourhoods and villages “back home”. And for many of the migrants, home was still Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria. One result of these “parallel lives” – as one of the reports into the 2001 disturbances referred to them – was that people of one community might never meet people of another. There was truth in the dictum that Britain had become a community of communities.

But this was not a truth to be welcomed – certainly from a Bahá’í perspective – since “diversity” had become the be-all and end-all of social, economic and cultural policy. Local government and voluntary organisations were encouraged to have “diversity officers”, functionaries whose job it was to somehow promote this vision of “diversity”.  Notoriously some local authorities decreed that Christmas would no longer be publicly celebrated, but would be replaced with a “winter festival”. One local authority is reputed – probably apocryphally – to have named this Christmas-replacement “Winterval”.

Ironically, the very people this neologism was meant to placate were the least likely to be upset by overt and public celebrations of Christmas. I, for whom Christmas is not a religious festival, regularly receive Christmas cards from Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Zoroastrian friends.

David Cameron, British Prime Minister

In a recent speech, British Prime Minister David Cameron roundly criticised multiculturalism both as an ideology and as government policy:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.

Unity is the human reality

The all-embracing focus on diversity almost entirely omitted the other crucial element in the human equation, unity.

The Bahá’í International Community’s (BIC) statement to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (a prime example of the snappy conference titles so beloved of the UN), held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, is unequivocal in its condemnation as a mental illusion of the notion that there are separate and incompatible groups of human beings:

At the root of all forms of discrimination and intolerance is the erroneous idea that humankind is somehow composed of separate and distinct races, peoples or castes, and that those sub−groups innately possess varying intellectual, moral, and/or physical capacities, which in turn justify different forms of treatment.

The reality is that there is only the one human race. We are a single people, inhabiting the planet Earth, one human family bound together in a common destiny, a single entity created from one same substance, obligated to ‘be even as one soul.’

Recognition of this reality is the antidote to racism, xenophobia and intolerance in all its forms.

As the BIC’s statement makes clear, human oneness is a reality supported both by religion and science.

The reality of human oneness is fully endorsed by science. Anthropology, physiology, psychology, sociology and, most recently, genetics, in its decoding of the human genome, demonstrate that there is only one human species, albeit infinitely varied in the secondary aspects of life. The world’s great religions likewise uphold the principle, even if their followers have, at times, clung to fallacious notions of superiority. The Founders of the world’s great religions have all promised that one day peace and justice would prevail and all humanity would be united.

And yet it is the mental illusion of separation that has been at the root of the policy of multiculturalism, which was supposed to be the cure for the very intolerance it unwittingly promoted.

Lessons from the RBCG

So what were the lessons learned from the Religion and Belief Consultative Group about unity in diversity?

Mainly this, that even a group of people committed to a frame of reference in which diversity was more important than unity could recognise common concerns and develop a language and a style of discourse in which those concerns could be articulated.

The views of RBCG members were frequently radically opposed to each other, and yet it was possible to have a frank, but not brutal, conversation, which allowed people to say what they needed to say.

Of course, one would not expect the evangelical Christian representatives to find much common ground with the atheists and secularists. And yet the fault lines did not always lie where one might expect. More often than seemed probable, I found myself agreeing with expressions by the representatives of the NSS or the BHA of the importance of certain values and of universal human rights. I did not always resonate with what was said by some of the religious representatives. What religion is – in doctrinal understanding and as a lived experience – for me, as a Bahá’í, is often quite different from what it is for those whose religions conform to the kinds of traditional patterns that are the subject of trenchant criticism by secularists.

I learned a lot from my years of chairing this group. I brought my experience of Bahá’í consultation and of chairing consultative groups to the table. I tried to ensure that all felt free to express themselves frankly but in a dispassionate manner. Many times I failed, but I was happy to develop friendships with people with such diverse beliefs and practices.

Beyond tolerance

And, yet, it was not enough to stop the dissolution that comes from an exclusive focus on diversity – a tolerant focus, albeit – pulling the group apart.

As the BIC’s Durban statement points out:

A proper understanding of this fact of existence [the reality of human oneness] has the capacity to carry humanity not merely past racism, racial and ethnic prejudice, and xenophobia but also beyond intermediate notions of tolerance or multiculturalism – concepts that are important stepping−stones to humanity’s long−sought goal of building a peaceful, just and unified world but insufficient for the eradication of such deeply rooted afflictions as racism and its companions.

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