In a video clip defining values based education, international consultant Dr Neil Hawkes suggests that ‘beliefs divide: values unite’. What does this mean in the current context of the British values agenda as a response to religious extremism?
Does it mean that we should, like France, become a secular state, making belief a matter of personal and private opinion? Can we still afford religious debate in the public arena? Or must we, in defence of free speech and the right to cause offence, continue to accept that violence is an outcome when some people who live in a democracy choose not to live by its rules? Should we continue to draft increasingly draconian anti-terrorist legislation while forcing educators by statute to teach values? Or is there another way?
I don’t believe that secularism is the answer. It is, after all, just one belief system amongst many and its imposition on society would itself be a denial of freedom to those other beliefs. The Charlie Hebdo murderers were French citizens who believed that their religion gave them a right to act beyond the rules of the secular democracy in which they lived. Secularism might remove discussions about belief from the public arena, but it does nothing to stop people acting on those beliefs. Arguably, it merely drives extremism further underground. I would suggest that the question isn’t whether we can still afford religion in the public arena, but whether we can afford to live without it.
Strong societies are held together by shared values, and shared conversation is a vital part of that community cohesion. I derive my values from my Christian faith, but in saying that, I’m not claiming that Christianity has an exclusive on human goodness. I believe that we all derive our values from our personal beliefs; I also believe that a shared conversation about our different beliefs leads to more understanding, not less. And in situations like 9/11, 7/7 and Charlie Ebdo, it’s often in the context of faith that people try to find answers to the question ‘Why?’
This debate, though, isn’t about the common ground of different beliefs. It’s important that we do find common ground, but we all adhere so firmly to our personal beliefs that we are unlikely to change them once formed. What the majority of us do have in common are the values that derive from our beliefs. Regardless of religious faith or none, most of us want a society based on honesty, courage, integrity, compassion, care, respect, tolerance and personal responsibility. And those shared values are not only where we derive the strength for our society, but also where we defeat the extremists who don’t want such a society.
But there’s something intrinsically disturbing about the UK government’s claiming of these values as uniquely British – a claim which politicises the agenda and which also, in the context of education, politicises the curriculum. It’s a decision for which the Department for Education has, quite rightly, been criticised. I find it equally disturbing when any one faith group claims that they are faith values, because they are not. To claim that they are is to create division based on religion. And further, trying to impose values through statutory curriculum content in our nurseries, schools and colleges is also wrong. Values don’t belong to any one political or faith system, and nurturing a value-driven society is not a matter of statute.
Returning, in conclusion, to belief, it’s true that there are aspects of belief that divide. As a Christian, I believe that we live in a world spoilt by sin, not just evidenced by extremism and murder but by unkindness, thoughtlessness and all the other things we all do wrong every day. I believe that the death of Christ offers us forgiveness for our sin. But here’s the thing – while many of you will disagree with me on that belief, I also believe that my life should evidence what the apostle Paul describes when writing to the church in Galatia: ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ He goes on to write: ‘Against such things there is no law’ and nobody would disagree with the set of values that derive, for me, from my faith. For you, they will derive from your belief. So while we may vary over derivation, we share a common set of core values.
So yes, there are doctrines and tenets of my faith that will cause division. But the values that Paul describes are common to us all, regardless of faith, and it’s you and me, living and demonstrating those values in community, that will build strong societies and ultimately defeat extremism.