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Role of religion in society in the United Kingdom

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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for initiating this important debate, for his distinguished contribution to the religious life of this country, and for the part he has played as a founding member and vice chair of The Interfaith Network, which, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It has helped to ensure that religious groups that may elsewhere find themselves in conflict, here in Britain meet in friendship and peace. That is a great blessing to us all.

My Lords, religion is often misunderstood in secular ages and societies like ours. It is seen as a set of strange beliefs and idiosyncratic rituals, both of which we could lose without loss. A better way of understanding religion even from the outside is as a shaper of character, a sustained education in a life lived beyond the self. Many, perhaps all, of the world’s great religions teach their adherents the importance of making sacrifices for the sake of others, through charity, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy, giving comfort to those in crisis, bringing moments of moral beauty into what might otherwise be harsh and lonely lives. Religion is the redemption of our solitude.

Long before these functions were taken over by the state, religious groups here and elsewhere were building schools and hospitals and networks of support. According to the extensive research carried out by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, today in America, and here in Britain, regular worshippers are more likely than others to give to charity, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular, do voluntary work, give money to a homeless person, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, spend time with someone who is feeling depressed, or help someone find a job. They are more active citizens, significantly more likely to belong to community organisations and neighbourhood groups. They get involved, turn up and lead. I do not say that to be good you need to be religious, but religiosity as measured by attendance at a house of worship turns out to be a better predictor of altruism and empathy than education, age, income, gender or race.

My Lords, if this is so, the social implications are immense. Just as religions were building a welfare state before there was a welfare state, so now and in the future they may help sustain a welfare society in areas where the need for help is greater than the ability of governments to provide it. They act as a countervoice to the siren song of a culture that sometimes seems to value self over others, rights over responsibilities, getting more than giving, consumption more than contribution, and success more than service to others.

I therefore congratulate the government for its support in bringing Britain’s many faiths together in acts of volunteering through local congregations and businesses. I urge it to consider further ways of harnessing the formidable altruistic energies of our faith communities for the common good of all of us together.