Tony Blair: As the world becomes smaller, the need to understand each other's faith grows

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The Independent Online

Why is faith still so important in the modern world? How has it confounded the many thinkers and commentators who, for the past 200 years and more, have predicted that religion would wither away and die? Why, on the contrary, is faith still flourishing?

The fact is, however much some people may dislike it, that faith still matters to billions of people around the world. Even in the West, which in many places now has only a tenuous connection with its religious traditions, millions of people still believe. In most other parts of the world, religions are growing. Faith provides a structure for people's lives, values to guide their behaviour and aspirations and ideals which endow their existence with meaning. It is a force which in countless different ways motivates people to do good, though sometimes, it is true, motivates them to do great harm.

So we shall not fully understand what drives countless individuals and the many different communities they make up if we do not understand religion in its various manifestations.

And this matters. It matters all the more in the world today, a world driven increasingly by the forces of globalisation. Under the momentum of globalisation, the world is opening up and countries and cultures are coming closer together at an astonishing speed. In the 21st century the world is becoming ever more interdependent. Large communities of different nations and faiths now live cheek by jowl, whereas before oceans and continents separated them and individuals could go a lifetime without encountering anyone of another faith or tradition.

For me this has a number of important implications. First, it is vitally important that we all have a better and deeper understanding of the different religions, their values and their mindsets. Any politician, any major business leader, any community leader needs to understand such an important influence for so many millions of people. Without that understanding, we shall make decisions that are misguided or plain wrong. And if different communities fail to comprehend one another better, that leads to misunderstanding, suspicion, and distrust.

Just one up-to-the-minute example. Gallup's rolling poll on religious attitudes shows that most Christians want better relations between Christianity and Islam but believe that most Muslims don't. Most Muslims want better relations too but think most Christians don't. Projects such as The Independent's Great Religions campaign can be of great help in this regard by raising the level of religious literacy.

Secondly, given faith's power to move people and to motivate them, it can either play a positive or a negative role. With globalisation pushing people closer together, peaceful coexistence becomes essential. And not just coexistence but active co-operation. If faith becomes a countervailing force pulling people and communities apart, it becomes destructive.

But if it becomes a means of peaceful coexistence, teaching people to live with a diverse religious ecology, to respect "the other", to search for common values while respecting differences, then faith becomes an important power for making the 21st century work more humanely and the one shared creation a better place for all its inhabitants.

Thirdly, religious faith potentially has a crucial part to play in shaping the values that can help to guide the modern world. It can and should be seen as a force for progress and betterment. But there is a risk that it either falls prey to extremist and exclusionist tendencies which are latent within each religion, or that faith is seen mainly as an interesting relic, part of the past but with little or nothing to say to the present and the future. But, in fact, faiths can transform and humanise the impersonal forces of globalisation, help to shape the values of the changing set of economic and power relationships of the 21st century, and underpin the responses of individuals and communities to the challenges and opportunities that globalisation creates.

That is why I believe that those who wish to exclude the voices of faith from the public square are so profoundly wrong. I am not arguing for a theocracy, nor that specific religious views should always prevail. But if societies do not draw on the wisdom of the religious traditions, then their debates on their future will be impoverished and ignore what is important to millions of their citizens.

So for all these reasons, and because as a person of faith I believe in its power in individual lives, I have set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The foundation will work with the three Abrahamic faiths and Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.

The foundation will not be primarily concerned with interfaith dialogue as such. There are many excellent organisations already deeply engaged in that; we do not want to duplicate what they do so well. Nor do we want to engage in doctrinal inquiries or try to subsume all faiths into a world faith of the lowest common denominator.

But we want to highlight faith in action. We want to facilitate greater opportunities for people of different faiths to work more closely together or work in areas where they may not have worked together before. And we want to grow greater understanding between faiths through shared action and encounter. We shall focus in the first phase on the following areas.

We aim to educate. So we are working with Yale University's Schools of Divinity and of Management to design a new course on faith and globalisation. It will run over three years initially and I will lead a series of seminars. It will be designed so that it can be spun off to other universities in different parts of the world, and I hope that its lessons will help to inform the thinking of politicians, business leaders and other opinion formers.

We shall also focus on schools. We are going to use new and interactive media to engage young people of different faiths. We want to produce material that teaches young people what it really feels like to be a member of another faith and captures their imaginations. In some countries there is a deficit of good and interesting material, and in others no material at all on any religion except that of the majority. We hope to help make good those deficits.

We intend to mobilise a greater interfaith effort in pursuit of the UN's millennium development goals. As a first step we will work with partner organisations to bring together people of different faiths to help to eradicate deaths from malaria, a scourge that kills 3,000 children a day. We intend to help to mobilise people of different faiths in countries affected to bring this about and, in the West, to mobilise young people of different faiths to come together to act as ambassadors for this initiative.

We believe that interfaith interaction can benefit from a physical structure as a focus for learning, discussion and contemplation. We are therefore backing the proposal of the Coexist Foundation to establish Abraham House in the heart of London. This will be a spectacular space in which exploration in depth can take place.

Finally, we will help organisations that aim to counter extremism and promote reconciliation in matters of religion. Where people of faith combat such extremism they should be supported.

In a shrinking world we must be global citizens as well as citizens of our own countries. And this means that we must know more about the dynamics of the world's great faiths, must be prepared to learn from their stores of wisdom, must be willing to trust those of other faiths and to work so that they will trust us.

If people of different faiths can coexist in mutual respect, then so much the better for our world.