Today's date:
Spring 2009

Faith Matters

Tony Blair is the former prime minister of Great Britain.

New Haven, Conn.—The pressures of globalization are pushing people together, obliterating boundaries through trade, travel, telecommunications and mass migration. If religious faith in such an interdependent world acts to push people apart, it becomes a force for division and conflict. That is bad for everybody. But for people of religious faith, that is a particularly bad outcome. It means that faith then becomes synonymous not with reconciliation, compassion and justice—what true religious faith should stand for—but with hatred and sectarianism.

I am so convinced of the importance of this issue that, over the past year, I undertook to conduct a seminar at Yale University to explore the subject. I did so not as an intellectual exercise, but because I believe this is a severely practical matter. Unless we find a way of reconciling faith and globalization, the world will be not only a dangerous place, but globalization itself will be far less successful in spreading prosperity.

There are 10 lessons I've learned from this undertaking:

  1. Religious faith matters. Whether one likes it or not, billions of people are motivated by religious faith.

  2. Faith is not in decline. It may be in decline in some places, but not worldwide. In some parts of the world, it is growing.

  3. Religious faith can operate positively in support, for example, of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and advance development. Wonderful work has been done on this by churches, mosques and Hindu and Jewish interfaith organizations. Or it can operate negatively, through fundamentalism or extremism.
  4. Globalization is forging multi-faith societies. The London my little boy is growing up in is completely different from the London he would have grown up in 30 years ago. The same is true across Europe and the United States as well.

  5. To work effectively, globalization needs values such as trust, confidence, openness and justice.

  6. Faith is not the only means, but it is an important means, of providing those values if faith is itself open and not closed, if it is based on compassion and help for others and not on the basis of exclusionary identity.

  7. For globalization to flourish, we need social capital—trust in each other so we can have confidence in the future. Spiritual capital, so to speak, is an important part of social capital.

  8. In an era, however, of globalization and multi-faith societies, creating such spiritual capital requires not only tolerance of respect, but also for people of other faiths.

  9. The key to respect is understanding and hence the need to learn and to educate ourselves about each other's faith and traditions.

  10. Organized religion should be supporting this process and allowing through it the evolution of faith so that faith can be a positive, constructive and progressive force.

So, faith matters. Values matter. How those combine will critically define the prospects of success, prosperity and peaceful coexistence of the global society in which we live. The alternative is tension, conflict and violence.

What does this mean practically? I once thought that globalization was a values-free process. Certainly, I thought, one should seek justice in an era of globalization for its own sake, but not for the reasons of efficiency. I have now come to change my view. This current global economic crisis illustrates why.

The crisis is first and foremost a crisis brought about in part by behavior—irresponsibility—that we wish hadn't taken place. And it has been prolonged by the absence of confidence because people can't trust the system. Values such as trust—being able to rely on the other person's word—and long-term perspective instead of short-term profit maximization are exactly what will create the confidence required to put our economy back on a sound footing for the future. In other words, confidence and the stability that flows from it cannot be restored by technical, regulatory means alone, but by a restoration of values.

This is but one case that illustrates the idea that an interdependent world cannot function without values that create the bonds of trust.

In foreign policy, this can be seen even more clearly. The violent attacks we saw in Mumbai are representative of the type of security threat we face in many places globally, from Iraq to Afghanistan, Iran to Pakistan and to our own cities in the West. Of course, we must be prepared for a military response as part of the answer to violence. But it is also true that it will be the force of ideas rather than the force of arms that will allow globalization to succeed and not break apart in strife.

Securing peace between Israel and Palestine would obviously be of enormous importance, a huge symbolic expression that would militate against the divisiveness and hatred that inspire people to commit acts of terrorism in the name of God. If we were able to create a space where people of different faiths could live and work together peacefully, it would be a powerful demonstration of a different set of values at work than those which, for decades, have only generated never-ending violence.

To defeat the forces of exclusion and division that lead to terrorism, which now has an enormous reach across all areas of the world, we must turn to education as a major component—not a minor effort—of foreign policy. We need to become literate about other faiths and ways of life.

Therefore, in both economic policy and foreign policy, it is clear than we can't make the world safe for interdependence unless we have strong values that guide us. Peaceful coexistence cannot take root unless we have strong alliances not only across nations but across faiths, through values we hold in common.

Whether the issue is the global economic crisis, African poverty or global warming, faith communities can provide a solid foundation for values and allied endeavors based on those values. But this is only true if faith is not about our traditions or our identity, but about values — not just the values of democracy and freedom, but of the common good, compassion and justice. Above all, we need an alliance of values that acknowledges—despite differences in creed or color—the equal dignity and equal worth of every individual before God.