Government announces another ‘faith promotion’ initiative for 2012

The government has announced its support for ‘A Year of Service’ to recognise ‘the role of faith in inspiring charitable work’ which will support religious-led volunteering days throughout 2012. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has said that while initiatives which bring together local communities and encourage volunteering can be really positive, focusing on religious groups is likely to be divisive and has called for the government to support truly inclusive community initiatives.

Launching the scheme, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP said, ‘Faith is a great motivator, and throughout the year people from different faiths regularly give something back, volunteering for projects that benefit individuals in need or their local neighbourhood. From donating food at the Christian Harvest festival, cleaning up a local park for Mitzvah Day or fund raising during Ramadan. We want to help them do what they do best, recognising that just a little support can make a big difference. The Year of Service is a chance to link these great efforts together throughout the year, strengthen the existing work carried out by faith groups and encourage greater levels of volunteering in neighbourhoods and among businesses, led by individual faith communities but involving people of all faiths and none.’

The BHA believes that social cohesion and other community initiatives – within and without the ‘Big Society' – must focus on the contribution that all individuals and groups in the community can make.

BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Initiatives which bring together local communities and encourage social participation can be really positive. It is unclear, however, why the government persists in its obsession to promote religion and focus on ‘faith’ in its communities policies, when there is no evidence to suggest that religious groups do more for the wider community than others, or are better at leading voluntary action. Although the government says the days will be inclusive of religious and non-religious people, basing the programme on belief identity is likely to be inherently exclusive for many. We would like to see the government working to support truly inclusive, secular initiatives, which bring together and are driven by people of all different backgrounds and beliefs without privilege or discrimination.’

The British Humanist Association (BHA) gave evidence to the parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee as part of its inquiry into the ‘Big Society’ in July 2011, and made clear that a focus on religious groups is misguided, and there is no evidence to support claims that religious people do more than others in terms of volunteering or social action.

Speaking to the Committee, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘In the UK there is no difference between non-religious [and religious] people’s charitable, civic or voluntary engagement. None at all.’ Referring to successive government citizenship surveys and other respected research, Mr Copson said there was no evidence ‘that being non-religious or being religious puts you at any disadvantage, or being religious puts you at any advantage, in terms of your participation and the value of your individual contribution to society in the UK’.