There will be no peace in our world without an understanding of the place of religion within it. The past decade has seen many convenient myths, which disguised the importance of religion, stripped away. Many thought as society progressed, religion would decline. It hasn’t happened.
Then there are those that insisted that as the Arab revolution knocked over long-established regimes and created movements for democracy, so those societies’ religiosity would take second place to the new politics. It hasn’t happened. Religion is fundamental to those societies and if anything, in the foreseeable future, will become more so. And do we seriously think the issue of Jerusalem can be resolved without at least some discussion of its religious significance to all three Abrahamic faiths?
The virus of terror based on a perversion of the proper faith of Islam shows no signs of abating. But it is not only the acts of terror that should alarm us. It is the extremism that promotes persecution of religious minorities, too. The challenge is that much greater where human dignity is not respected and freedom of religion denied. This results in a general oppression of people of faith. It means we must support Muslims in Gujarat, India; non-Orthodox Christians in Moldova; Bahai’s in Iran; Ahmadis in Pakistan; all Christians in north Africa; Hindus in Sri Lanka; Shia in several Sunni majority countries, and other places.
The basic point is this: on every side, in every quarter, wherever we look and analyse, religion is a powerful, motivating, determining force shaping the world around us. For some, this is final proof of the iniquity of religious faith. The answer, they say, is to abandon it. But for millions of people, faith is not measured in prejudice, intolerance or violence; but in love, compassion, a desire for and a striving for a more just and humane world.
It is this belief in a higher purpose that makes them assert the civilising force of faith in the modern world. But for this to happen, religious, secular and political people need to start talking with each other to build peaceful coexistence. We need religion-friendly democracy and democracy-friendly religion. I offer here a third way. Those of us inspired by our faith must have the right to speak out on issues that concern us and in the name of our beliefs. At the same time our voice cannot predominate over the basic democratic system that functions equally for all, irrespective of those of faith or of none.
In turn, this should lead to a vital debate about the nature of democracy, a debate all the more critical as we witness the Arab revolutions. I find it hard to define democracy by reference to one faith. The essence of democracy is that it is pluralistic. It is inherently secular, even if rooted in cultures that are profoundly religious. This is where democracy-friendly religion really means something very important in the way society is governed.
It is about free media; freedom of expression; and about freedom of religion. It is also about an independent judiciary and the rule of law and even about free markets albeit with appropriate government intervention and regulation. Political pluralism and religious pluralism go together. The challenges are thus made very clear. Religion matters. Faith motivates and compels. If democracy is to function effectively therefore, religion itself has to embrace the open mind not the closed mind.
This open attitude of mind cannot be inculcated by politicians alone. It has to be undertaken, in part at least by those of faith. They have to provide a) the platform of interfaith understanding and respect; and b) the theological and scriptural justification for the open mind. With the best will in the world, protective constitutional provisions will remain paper aspirations if religious and government leaders do not educate their constituencies in religious minority rights.
A commitment to human dignity means concrete action: training law enforcement officers to uphold these values, teaching from primary school upwards of respect and understanding for people of other faiths, religious literacy for national leaders.
This undeniably presents an enormous challenge to religious leaders: to draw from their own traditions and sacred texts the values and vision that will create a culture of democracy. The defence of the rights of people of other beliefs should be a routine part of their work, just as they defend the rights of their own community. Otherwise how can they stand as champions of universal values?
There is the justified question whether the truth-claims of the monotheistic religions draw them inevitably into intransigent, non-negotiable positions. But it is the interpretation of these truth-claims that is the problem; the repeated human desire to claim that God is on our side, that we have formed the Party of God, that our human frailty, cruelty and inhumanity is sanctioned by God. The arrogance behind that is surely the true meaning of blasphemy.
Finally, were a third way to open up, there would be one major and positive consequence for faith itself. It would open up the potential of faith to many who at present search for spiritual meaning but have come to regard the practice of faith as the preserve of the irrational, the superstitious and the prejudiced. It would allow a true and rational belief in god to direct the path of the 21st century. That is where faith belongs. And why the world needs it.
• This is the edited version of a speech made on 10 November. To read the speech in full go to www.tonyblairfaithfoundation.org.