Civic institutions, laws and practices need to reflect the UK's less religious, more diverse society, according to Living with Difference, a report released today by the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life (CORAB). Convened by the Woolf Institute, CORAB is chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss and includes Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Senior Lecturer in School of Philosophy Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham.
One of the main conclusions of Living with Difference is that politicians need urgently to overhaul UK public policy on religion and belief, to take account of the increasing impact of religion globally, set alongside the less religious, less Christian and hugely more diverse nature of our society here in Britain.
Amongst the report's most striking proposals are:
- Representation in the House of Lords to be opened up to other faiths, offsetting the number of bishops, and the next coronation become a pluralist rather than purely Church of England event.
- A reduction in the percentage of admissions on the basis of religion by faith schools.
- Re-focusing anti-terror legislation on promoting, not limiting, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and engagement with a wide range of affected groups.
- The creation of a new bottom-up Magna Carta-style statement of values for public life, as an alternative to the Government’s approach to defining so-called 'fundamental British values'.
The report has been prepared by twenty of the country's leading religious and academic thinkers from every major religious tradition, including a bishop, a Rabbi and Imam, as well as by the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association. Two years in the making, the report of the Commission results from over 200 written and oral submissions of evidence from across religious and ethical traditions.
Dr Jhutti-Johal says, 'The recommendations include a focus on legal reform and public policy recommendations, and, most important, a call for much greater religious literacy in every section of society, and at all levels, in order to challenge the potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification in public debates, something that the Commission heard again and again in the National Hearings, particularly the National Youth Hearing that was hosted by University of Birmingham on 26 February 2015'.
The report says the legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed and that the BBC's Charter should be extended to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society. It asks the Ministry of Justice to issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious courts and says the Government should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping more and by engaging with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees.
Elsewhere, the report reveals that almost half the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in England and a third in Scotland in 2001. It says that thirty years ago two-thirds of those living in the UK would have identified as Christians while today it’s two-fifths, and that fifty years ago Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is fourth behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
Commission Chair, Baroness Butler-Sloss GBE, the first woman President of the Family Division, says, 'From recent events in France, to the schools so many of our children attend and even the adverts screened in cinemas, for good and ill religion and belief impacts directly on all our daily lives. The proposals in this report amount to a "new settlement for religion and belief in the UK", intended to provide space and a role for all within society regardless of their beliefs or absence of them.'
As Dr Ed Kessler MBE, CORAB Vice-Chair and Director of the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute (which specialises in the study of Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations) argues, 'Society has changed beyond all recognition in two generations, but policy making in this area has been piecemeal and haphazard. Public policy needs, as a matter of urgency, to be overhauled to be much more pluralistic and much more welcoming of difference.'