The hidden positive reality of multi-faith life in the UK

Sitting somewhere behind the tension-filled headlines of public conversations on faith and religion is a lived experience of multi-faith life in the UK that speaks to a hidden positivity and optimism.

In May this year, the Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life (IIFL) commissioned research into attitudes to faith in British life. Whitestone Insight (a member of the British Polling Council) conducted online interviews with 2,064 UK adults, religious and non-religious. The findings were intriguing – and perhaps surprising.

Let’s begin with the troubling findings, or at least those that at first glance might appear troubling. The study found that only 36% of respondents agreed that religion is a force for good in society. Respondents of faith did not rank significantly higher, with only 55% of participants in agreement. While this may appear disheartening, the context is important. Do these findings reflect a genuine belief that religion harms communities more than benefits? Or do they reflect perceptions of religion’s involvement in current instabilities in the West and the Middle East? While impossible to answer without further inquiry, responses to other questions, as we shall see, can help cast a more positive light upon this finding.

Given this apparent lack of confidence in the positive impact of religion, it is perhaps unsurprising that people were less than enthusiastic about religion in politics and the workplace. Only 36% thought politicians should talk about their faith, and there was little significant difference for religious participants (51%). Just under half (41%) believed people should discuss their faith in the workplace, with numbers rising to only 47% for religious participants. I should point out, however, that the sample was almost evenly split. Across the whole sample, 38% argued that politicians should not talk about their faith and 42% believed that faith should not be discussed in the workplace. Resistance to religion in these areas of public life was by no means unanimous.

People may have been somewhat evenly split over their preferences for religion in politics and the workplace, but this was not the case for religion in the media. 63% of respondents were against increased religious media coverage and 49% of religious respondents agreed. However, there may be something more interesting happening here. These findings might reflect people’s thoughts on media credibility rather than religion. Around half the participants (51%) thought the media was unbalanced and more than half (71%) thought it was biassed. This apparent mistrust is good news. It points to a perception that media representations of religion in the UK do not accurately match the experience of religion in the UK. Identifying negative bias is positive because it points to the perception of a more positive reality which is believed to be misrepresented.

All the above points are perhaps connected. We ought not to be surprised that if people believe religion to be more harmful than beneficial, they will resist its presence in public life – in politics, the workplace, and the media. Yet, other findings of the report reveal that the UK may be more optimistic about the contributions of religion than these responses suggest.

The report also found that religion appears important to life in the UK. 62% of respondents agreed that Christian heritage is important to the UK, with just under half of non-religious participants in agreement (47%). There is a perception that the UK welcomes religious diversity (60% agreed) and that good relations exist between faith groups (73% of the sample report having friends of different faiths).

Moreover, to our earlier point, while only 36% of the sample agreed that religion is a positive force in communities, 53% agreed that religion has contributed to compassion and equality in the West. More than half supported religious education in schools (61%) and considered knowledge of other faiths important (80%).

When considered in their totality, these findings are positive. They show that in the UK the tensions experienced in making multi-faith communities work are to a greater than lesser extent being navigated through a lived experience of harmonious interfaith relations and an intuition of the broader value offered by faith communities. The findings point to positive experiences of living within multi-faith communities and a belief, even among the non-religious, that faith and religion are positive aspects of UK life. Education and personal responsibility in seeing and responding to others with clarity and compassion are prized, and misrepresentations are resisted.

Multi-faith life in the UK is not without tensions, but this report points to an unspoken positive experience of faith and religion in the UK, and a belief in its potential to benefit communities that goes some way to redressing the balance that can feel absent from public discussions of faith.

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