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The true nature of faith in a globalized age

by Tony Blair

LONDON — The number of people proclaiming their faith worldwide is growing. This is clearly so in the Islamic world. Whereas Europe’s birthrate is stagnant, the Arab population is set to double in the coming decades, and the population will rise in many Asian Muslim-majority countries.

Christianity is also growing — in odd ways and in surprising places.

Religion’s largest growth is in China. Indeed, the religiosity of China is worth reflecting on. There are more Muslims in China than in Europe, more practicing Protestants than in England, and more practicing Catholics than in Italy. In addition, according to the latest surveys, around 100 million Chinese identify themselves as Buddhist. And, of course, Confucianism — a philosophy rather than a religion — is deeply revered.

There is a huge Evangelical movement in Brazil and Mexico. Faith remains for many in the United States a vital part of their lives. Even in Europe, the numbers confessing to a belief in God remain high. And, of course there are hundreds of millions of Hindus and still solid numbers of Sikhs and Jews.

Those of faith do great work because of it. Around 40 percent of health care in Africa is delivered by faith-based organizations. Muslim, Hindu and Jewish relief groups are active in combating poverty and disease. In any developed nation, you find selfless care being provided to the disabled, the dying, the destitute and the disadvantaged by people acting under the impulse of their faith. Common to all great religions is love of neighbors and human equality before God.

Unfortunately, compassion is not the only context in which religion motivates people. It can also promote extremism, even terrorism. This is where faith becomes a badge of identity in opposition to those who do not share it, a kind of spiritual nationalism that regards those who do not agree — even those within a faith who live a different view of it — as unbelievers, infidels, and thus enemies.

To a degree, this has always been so. What has changed is the pressure of globalization. Fifty years ago, children might rarely meet someone of a different cultural or faith background. Today, when I stand in my 10-year-old son’s playground or look at his friends at his birthday party, I find myriad different languages, faiths and colors.

I rejoice in this. But such a world requires mutual respect. Such a world upends traditions and challenges old thinking, forcing us to choose consciously. And there’s the rub.

For some, this force is a threat. It menaces deeply conservative societies. And, for those for whom religion matters, globalization can sometimes be accompanied by an aggressive secularism or hedonism that makes many uneasy. So we must make sense of how the world of faith interacts with the compulsive process of globalization.

Most of the conflicts in today’s world have a religious dimension. Extremism based on a perversion of Islam shows no sign of abating; indeed, it will not abate until it is taken on religiously, as well as by security measures. This extremism is, slowly but surely, producing its own reaction, as we see from Islamaphobic parties’ electoral gains in Europe, and statements by European leaders that multiculturalism has failed.

Of course, throughout time, religion has often been part of a political conflict. But that doesn’t mean that religion should be discounted. On the contrary, it requires a special focus.

I started my Faith Foundation precisely to create greater understanding between the faiths. My reasoning is simple. Those advocating extremism in the name of religion are active, well resourced, and — whatever the reactionary nature of their thinking — brilliant at using modern communication and technology. We estimate that literally billions of dollars every year are devoted to promoting this view of religion.

So my Foundation has a university program — now under way in nine countries — that is designed to take religion out of the sole preserve of divinity schools and start analyzing its role in the world today. We have another program — in 15 countries, with others set to join — that links high school students across the world through interactive technology to discuss their faith and what it means to them. And we have an action program through which young people work with those of another faith to raise awareness of the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations-led program to combat world poverty.

Governments should take this far more seriously. The Alliance of Civilizations, begun by Spain and Turkey, is one example. The king of Saudi Arabia has also shown great leadership in this sphere.

Religious leaders must accept a new responsibility: to stand up firmly and resolutely for respecting those of faiths different from their own. Aggressive secularists and extremists feed off each other. Together, they constitute a real challenge to people of faith. We must demonstrate the loving nature of true faith; otherwise, religion will be defined by a battle in which extremists seize control of faith communities and secularists claim that such attitudes are intrinsic to religion.

Tony Blair is a former prime minister of the United Kingdom. © 2010 Project Syndicate