London, Sunday (25th of Nov 2012): In a debate in the House of Lords earlier this week, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, Lord Singh of Wimbledon spoke passionately on the role of religion in society.
Lord’s Singh leads debate on the role of religion in societyOctober 27th, 2013 | Posted by in Press Releases
“My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the role of religion in public life.
Religion today has a bad press and has been pushed into the margins of society. Even there, key beliefs such as the importance of marriage are attacked by those intolerant of the rights and beliefs of others. To me, as a Sikh, this pressure to keep religion out of public life is like saying, “Keep ethical considerations out of politics”. This is bad in itself but what is worse is to see some within our different religions reacting to this pressure by withdrawing from involvement in daily life to contemplate the hereafter.
This disconnect between the practice of religion and the challenges and concerns of daily living is totally contrary to the central teachings of religion. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, was highly critical of some holy men who had withdrawn to the wilderness in search of God. He told them that God was not to be found in the wilderness but in the service of our fellow human beings. He taught that religious disciplines like fasting, going on pilgrimages and, for Sikhs, the serving of food in the gurdwara to whoever enters, are simply reminders of our responsibilities to wider society. Unfortunately, some people in religion see these as an end in themselves and no wonder many in wider society see religion as being irrelevant to our lives. If we look at the behaviour of those who misuse religion in the pursuit of power or to justify cruel or discriminatory behaviour, we can see why religion has got such a bad public image.”
He added, “Looking at the world about us, it is right to acknowledge the huge advances made by secular society in the pursuit of material wellbeing. Astonishing advances in scientific understanding and gigantic leaps in medical and genetic research mean that we are now able to play with the very building blocks of life, with the prospect of treating previously incurable disease and significantly increasing our life span. For some, life has never been so good, but not for all. Alongside these positive achievements, we also have a record prison population of about 90,000. More than 10,000 traumatised and bewildered children are taken into community care every year. When we consider that the annual cost of keeping someone in prison is about £38,000 and that of keeping a child in care is about £2,500 a week, we get a small glimpse of the financial cost of irresponsible living. Only last weekend, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, said that more children should be taken into care to save them from, “soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair’.
We have record numbers of abortions and teenage pregnancies and binge drinking, not only among the young but, as we have heard recently, even among the elderly as a way to cope with the tensions and problems of selfish and uncaring society. The use of drugs in the search for elusive contentment has risen dramatically.
We regularly address such issues in your Lordships’ House, asking what the Government are going to do about this or that. The carefully researched answers couched in elegant terms amount to, “Not a lot”. This is not a criticism. Limited amounts of money can be shifted about but the real problems go much deeper. It is a bit like trying to treat the spots and sores of deeper maladies with cosmetic creams.
When Jesus Christ taught that, “Man shall not live by bread alone”,
he reminded us of the futility of pursuing a mirage of happiness through more and better material possessions. The fallout from lifestyles that disregard wider responsibilities is seen in rising rates of divorce and separation. Children from divorced or separated parents, once a comparative rarity in the classroom, are now all too common, often showing patters of behaviour that link them to physical or emotional abuse.
Our different religions acknowledge the importance of the material side of life, but also remind us that this must be accompanied by constant reflection on the ethical implications of what we do and, importantly, active consideration for the wider well-being of society-something that Sikhs call “sarbat ka bhalla”.
It is sometimes argued that the problems created by selfish living and a lack of wider responsibility can be addressed by better citizenship training. The difficulty here is that citizenship looks at society as it is and teaches children to conform to transient and sometimes questionable social norms. Religion frequently challenges such norms. For example, in the 1950s, accommodation adverts in shop windows would often say: “No blacks or coloureds”. This was accepted by the culture of the times but opposed by religious teachings.
Today, we have both the challenge and opportunity of different faiths living side by side and must now move beyond superficial niceness to actively promoting common values that benefit society. The one God of us all is not interested in our religious labels but in what we do.
Our different religions remind us that the well-being of society starts with the family and a recognition of the importance of marriage as a committed relationship in which a couple are prepared to endure trials and tribulations to ensure a stable and positive environment for children. In school, children are taught the three Rs of basic education. In the home children can learn the equally important three Rs of right, wrong and responsibility.
We live in a society where different lifestyles are rightly respected. However, we cannot afford to ignore the harm done to children by transient and selfish relationships. A true story puts it better than any words of mine. Two children were seen fighting hammer and tongs in the school playground. Finally a teacher managed to prise them apart and asked what it was all about. Eyes brimming with tears, the smaller boy said, “His dad has taken my mum away”. We cannot afford to ignore the clear findings of surveys by Civitas and the ONS that show that in general married couples enjoy better health and better home care in old age than their single and cohabiting peers, and that children who live with married parents do better at school.
In recent years, the Government has made tentative attempts to engage with faiths through various government-chaired committees. Unfortunately, the nature of this engagement is often reflected in the name of initiatives, such as Prevent, geared to preventing religions making nuisances of themselves. Instead of Prevent, we need a greater enabling focus that helps religions to work more fully at all levels with secular society.
It is true that some in secular society are working to address many of the ills of which I have spoken. Religion has huge potential to add much needed impetus to their efforts, in our common goal of a fairer and more responsible society for our children in a world of new challenges and opportunities.”
Other peers who contributed to the debate included. Baroness Eaton, Lord Sacks, Baroness Brinton, The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells, Lord Popat, Lord Hameed, Lord Patten and Baroness Flather.
Baroness Flather declared herself an atheist Hindu and went on to add that Lord Singh was extremely fortunate that he belonged to the best religion for today’s difficult times.
In an echo of Sikh teachings, Lord Hameed said “As human beings, we are all more alike than different-irrespective of our physical make-up and self-created labels which might suggest otherwise. The challenge before us is to respect and understand others without compromising the bedrock of our own faith.”