Faith matters: whether you are religious or not, or even anti-religious. It matters because it inspires people to act. That can be for ill, as we see when extremism captures parts of the faith community. Or it can be for good, as with the Make Poverty History campaign. But to ignore the role of faith is to be blind to a dimension of the world that plays a part in the thinking and attitudes of billions of people.

Even recently, religion was still being written off. For over 250 years, the view had grown that advanced men and women no longer needed religion. It was a view rooted in the new thinking of the Enlightenment, reinforced by scientific discoveries, particularly Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, which challenged traditional religious understandings of the nature of the world. Underpinned by a belief in the inevitable progress of all humankind, but especially those branches of humankind who happened to live in the West, it increasingly confined religion to the private sphere.

But in fact at no time has religion ever gone away. It is at the very core of life for billions of people, the motive for their behaviour, the thing that gives sense and purpose to their lives. Gallup predicts that by 2050, 80 per cent of the world’s population are expected to be of faith. Religious practice and belief in many African societies have increased with urbanisation and the decline of so-called “traditional” society.

So why despite it all does faith persist, why has it not disappeared with the advent of modern science and technology? Despite all the aspects of organised religion and unorganised religion that put people off, why does it continue to inspire works of supreme self-sacrifice?

Along with all the doctrine and theology, the practice and the ritual, at its core religious faith represents a profound yearning within the human spirit. It answers to the basic, irrepressible, irresistible human wish for spiritual betterment, to think and act beyond the limitations of selfish human desires. More than that, it is rooted in a belief that the impulse to do good is not utilitarian but is being aware of something bigger, more central, more essential to our human condition than self. It says there are absolutes – like the inalienable worth and dignity of every human being – that can never be sacrificed. Religion does not provide the only ethical framework, but it is an enduring one.

Mass migration is changing communities, even countries. People communicate ideas and images instantly around the world, creating political and ideological movements in a ferment of quickly devoured information. Economically the world system is ever more dependent on confidence, robust when things seem good, extraordinarily brittle when confidence dips. The world is interdependent today, economically, politically, even to a degree ideologically.

No leader – political or economic – can now afford to be ignorant about religion and how it motivates people. And in a globalised world, they need to understand how different religions can play out in different societies and geographies, not just their own. Many have a fear that globalisation is throwing people, cultures, countries together but with no understanding of each other. It is in this context that the role of faith is especially important, not least because most religions were global, even before political and economic systems were. If religious people reach out and believe in respecting “the other” they can help reduce fear and tension – demonstrating a way of being proud of their own distinctive religious and often cultural identity, but open towards those who are different to them.

Huge debates rage across the world about the role of religion in public life. Exploring this – from a political, economic and social perspective – is a key aim of the courses the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has established on “Faith and Globalisation” with several of the world’s leading universities – starting with Yale, and now at the National University of Singapore, and soon at Durham and McGill universities.

The answer is not to squeeze out religion from every aspect of public life – though a debate about where the line is is worth having. Positive relations between different religions cannot be achieved in circumstances in which people are required to keep an important part of their identity totally private. The pressure-cooker effect of trying to restrict the core identity of around 4 billion of the world’s population would be foolish and unfair. Instead, effective interfaith encounters can build a world of coexistence, not exclusion.

Obviously most people, whether religious or not, would prefer to live in a world in which there is peaceful coexistence. Poor inter-religious relations pose threats ranging from unhappy and uncertain situations between neighbours or colleagues, to global terrorism and war.

There is no point in ducking this issue. Religious faith can give rise to extremism. But even if a minuscule minority of religious people use terror, there are people who hold extreme views in virtually every religion. And even where there is not extremism expressed in violence, faith is problematic when it becomes a way of denigrating those who do not share it, as somehow lesser human beings. But recall also the evils of the 20th century done in the furtherance of political ideology: fascism, the Holocaust, communism and the millions of Stalin’s victims. The heroic defiance of those evils was often led by men and women of faith.

Religion faces the challenge not only of extremism but also of irrelevance. Too many people see religious faith as stark dogmatism and empty ritualism, far removed from the necessities and anxieties of ordinary life. It can make religion an easy target.

On a practical level, in a context where the value of religion itself is being questioned but the levels of individual religiosity are increasing, there is an opportunity. Religious people can show how their faith motivates them to do good for others, as well as providing spiritual support and salvation for themselves. And we would all think more highly of religion, if the stories we heard were about care for the poor and the sick, the environment and society, not about prejudice, conflict and violence.

Tony Blair Faith Foundation work in MalawiSo the Foundation focuses less on theological dialogue, and more on action; specifically, what people of faith can do together. You can already see it in countless local communities where those from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples tend the sick, work long hours in bad conditions to bring hope to the despairing. But more could be done.

Roughly one million people die every year from malaria, mainly women and children. It is preventable. We know what works and it is affordable – bednets, medicines and trained health workers can save lives. But many of the most malarious regions are remote, with few or no health clinics or hospitals. Every village or town has a church or a mosque. These can be the distribution centres for bednets and the medicines and where health advice can be given. In Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique and elsewhere there are excellent programmes training leaders from different faiths together so that they undertake health education amongst their communities.

The potential is great. Religious leaders are given a high level of trust. Faith communities retain a high level of social capital. Given training, a small amount of funding, and mobile phones, they can provide government with vital and missing data about the incidence of disease and the effectiveness of delivery of healthcare in parts of their populations where government has negligible access.

Tony Blair Faith Foundation work in MaliOf course you don’t need to be religious to be good. Those we support do so in collaboration with many non-religious agencies. But in these areas the faith community is making a contribution that, in reality, only they can make. We have trained a group of young people from five of the world’s main religions – and a humanist – who work together to mobilise communities in the West and link them with faith communities in the affected malarious regions.

For religious and non-religious alike, I believe that interfaith understanding and multi-faith social action initiatives perform a valuable function that should be welcomed. Those who seek to cause religious conflict are small in number but highly motivated, well organised and well funded. Those who want to create a more positive alternative need all the support we can get. While there are billions of people who are loyal to their own religion, there is no natural constituency for interfaith – but there needs to be.

Without organisations that help facilitate relations between people who have different cultures and belief systems, the world is a much colder, potentially much more dangerous place. In a crowded, constantly changing and interdependent world, the Foundation attempts to bring people of different religions and none together to understand each other better, and to live peacefully and with respect, by providing opportunities to collaborate on practical projects that make a real difference to the challenges of modern life. That’s a mission I’d have thought anyone – religious or not – would be happy to support.

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