Today's date:
Fall 2008

Faith in an Interdependent World

Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, now heads the Tony Blair Faith Foundation which seeks a encounter between faiths and the spread of “religious literacy.” His comments here are adapted from Blair’s speech launching the foundation last summer.

New Haven, Conn.—The world is undergoing tumultuous change. Globalization, underpinned by technology, is driving much of it, breaking down boundaries, altering the composition of whole communities, even countries, and creating circumstances in which new challenges arise that can only be met effectively together. Interdependence is now the recognized human condition.

So, the characteristic of today’s world is change. The consequence is a world opening up and becoming interdependent. The conclusion is that we make sense of this interdependence through peaceful coexistence and working together to resolve common challenges.

In turn, this requires an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional as well as an intellectual response consistent with this conclusion. A sentiment that we are members of a global community as well as individual nations means we must be global citizens as well as citizens of our own country.

All this sounds impossibly idealistic.

But if the analysis of the nature of the world is as I set out, then it is in fact the only practical way to organize our affairs. Idealism becomes the new realism.

This is especially so since the world is changing in other ways, too. Power is shifting east. The center of gravity of political interest and political power is moving. The emergence of China and India has been obvious, in prospect, for years. Now it is here in our lives, in practical impact. And not just in the Far East, but the Near East, too.

Just think of an institution like the G7; think of when it was founded and its members; think if it were invented today and how different that membership would be. The 20th-century order is history. There is a new reality. We have to come to terms with it. And it implies, at its fundamentals, peaceful coexistence or catastrophe.

Into this new world comes the force of religious faith. The latest polling information is contained in Gallup’s rolling poll of religious attitudes, which is a hugely important source of analysis.

Here is what the polling shows.

Most Christians want better relations between Christianity and Islam but believe most Muslims don’t. Most Muslims want better relations but believe most Christians don’t. Most Americans think most Muslims do not accept other religions. Actually most Muslims say they want greater and not lesser interaction between religions.

In answer to the question “is religion an important part of your life,” many Muslim countries’ citizens answer in the high 80’s or 90’s as a percentage; in the United States it is around 70 percent; in the UK and mainland Europe it is under 40 percent. Interestingly, though, even in the UK more than a third of people say it is important.

So: religion matters and there is a lot of fear around between the faiths.

In summary, you cannot understand the modern world unless you understand the importance of religious faith. Faith motivates, galvanizes, organizes and integrates millions upon millions of people.

Here is the crucial point. Globalization is pushing people together. Interdependence is reality. Peaceful coexistence is essential. If faith becomes a countervailing force, pulling people apart, it becomes destructive and dangerous.

If, by contrast, it becomes an instrument of peaceful coexistence, teaching people to live with difference, to treat diversity as a strength, to respect “the other,” then faith becomes an important part of making the 21st century work. It enriches, it informs, it provides a common basis of values and belief for people to get along together.

I believe, as someone of faith, that religious faith has a great role to play in an individual’s life.

But even if I didn’t, even if I was of no faith, I would still believe in the central necessity of people of faith learning to live with each other in mutual respect and peace.

In our work, we do not seek to engage in a doctrinal inquiry. We do not want to subsume different faiths in one faith of the lowest common denominator. We want to show faith in action.

We want to produce greater understanding between faiths through encounter. We want people of one faith to be comfortable with those of another because they know what they truly believe, not what they thought they might believe.

We cannot afford religious illiteracy. No modern company would today be ignorant of race or gender issues. The same should be true of faith.

Among other activities, my foundation will help organizations whose object is to counter extremism and promote reconciliation in matters of religious faith. Though there is much focus, understandably, on extremism associated with the perversion of the proper faith of Islam, there are elements of extremism in every major faith. It is important where people of good faith combat such extremism that they are supported.

This is a century rich in potential to solve problems, provide prosperity to all, to overcome longstanding issues of injustice that previously we could not surmount. But it only works if the values which inform the change are values that unify and do not divide. Religious faith has a profound role to play.