No excluding religion

The recent public discussion on the role of religious leaders and priests in politics was an important discussion. For me it opens an even broader discussion on the role of faith, faith-based institutions and religious practitioners, not only in the political sphere, but in all aspects of our society.

Over the years there has been a gradual slide away from recognizing the importance of faith and faith-based groups in the political, social and economic development of the society. Indeed, not only in Barbados but in several developed countries the trend has been to disregard religion in looking at solutions to the growing number of challenges. That trend is further compounded by the growing number of persons in developed countries who discard attachment to any form of faith and instead focus solely on secular and material pursuits.

On a recent call-in programme a caller suggested the removal of religious instruction from schools. His call was met with approval from some, including the moderator. And while other callers made their disagreement known, the trend undoubtedly is to sideline faith in our modern materialistic societies.

I have been and remain a champion for the inclusion of faith and faith-based initiatives in all areas of our society. I strongly believe that faith solutions play an important role in confronting the myriad of problems in our country today. I was extremely disappointed some weeks ago when I heard on the news that the Attorney General of Barbados chose to dismiss the role of religion in the proper upbringing and instilling of morals in the lives of our young people. He said at a public discussion that we have to find different ways of teaching young people right from wrong. He argued that one does not have to be religious to know right from wrong or that stealing or killing is wrong. He further argued that fewer young people were going to church so we have to find other ways of teaching them morals and values.  On the surface one can agree that we have to find additional ways of teaching our young people morals and values and what is right and wrong, but to dismiss the immense positive contribution of faith and faith-based action on the lives of human beings is counter-productive and destructive.

Religion, faith and faith-based action have and continue to have an extremely positive effect on the lives of thousands. And I am fully aware of the detractors that will use historical and current negative actions by so-called religious practitioners to justify doing away with religion. But these illicit and immoral actions by religious fundamentalists and fanatics cannot overshadow the countless positives that religious values, morals and spiritual beliefs have contributed to humankind.

In a world that is increasingly driven by materialistic pleasures, economic gain, individual self-aggrandizement, spiritual belief is that source of contentment beyond the physical world that so many can use as an anchor. It is regrettable that these materialistic pursuits are giving individuals that false sense of joy and accomplishment but not the necessary tools that faith provides when all does not go the way they would like it to.

I had the opportunity last November to attend a Caribbean regional symposium on religious freedom, organized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Catholic Pontifical University in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I was the only one representing the non-Christian religious faith at this symposium. It was a wonderful learning experience and an opportunity I would like to thank the Barbados chapter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for extending to me.

The symposium dealt with the subject of Religious Freedom and Economic Development. It brought together representatives from various Christian denominations in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as lawyers, journalists and university professors. It was noted at the symposium that religious freedom was on the decline in most parts of the world, except in the Caribbean and Latin America, but we should not take that for granted. There are laws in Latin America and the Caribbean that safeguard the rights to religious practice and expression. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world those rights and freedoms are being curtailed either by Governments or other groups in society. Sixty per cent of countries today have high government restrictions on religious freedoms.

It was also noted that while there was a decline in religious affiliation in most western countries, statistics show significant growth in the religiously affiliated, in countries such as China (Buddhist), India (Hindu), Japan (Shinto), Indonesia (Islam) and the United States (Christian).

One of the authors of the book The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, Brian J. Grim, presented at the symposium. His book shows that, contrary to popular opinion, ensuring religious freedom for all reduces violent religious persecution and conflict. While others have suggested that restrictions on religion are necessary to maintain order or preserve a peaceful religious homogeneity, the book argues that restricting religious freedoms is associated with higher levels of violent persecution. Relying on a new source of coded data for nearly 200 countries and case studies of six countries, the book offers a global profile of religious freedom and religious persecution.

During his presentation Grim argued that religious freedom aligns itself with sustainable development.  Using the United States (US) as an example, he argued that “there’s a growing belief that religion doesn’t contribute to American society, but the numbers don’t support it.

“Religion in the United States today contributes a combined $1.2 trillion to our economy and society every year. These expenditures range from the basic economic drivers of any business – staff, overhead, and utilities – to billions spent on philanthropic programmes, educational institutions and health care services. Congregations, faith-based businesses, institutions and faith-based charities strengthen our economy, build communities and families and lift people up in times of need in a way that no other institution or government does.”

His full presentation can be found at www.faithcounts.com and in it you will find the reality that religious groups of all persuasions contribute in a huge and significant way not only to the social development but also to the economic development of that country. Their combined contribution of $1.2 trillion exceeds the revenue of the ten largest tech companies, including Amazon, Google and Apple combined. In terms of GDP, it would be the 15th largest economy in the world. With around 344,000 congregations across the US they are serving a myriad of purposes. There are houses of worship but also the nucleus of these communities, centers for learning, childcare, job training, charitable events and social activities. They employ thousands, spend millions on goods and services and help millions in need.

My point in recounting the above is to highlight the very important role religious institutions of all beliefs play in our society, whether you view it from the narrow point of view of spiritual enhancement or the wider view of economic and social development. It definitely has a role to play in the political, social and economic development of our country.

Source: (Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI.Email: suleimanbulbulia@hotmail.com)

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