If you read this column with any sort of regularity, you know my feelings about the government’s Prevent strategy. If you haven’t, I’ll fill you in: I don’t like the government’s Prevent strategy. When I went through the training recently (sans dog collar), I was horrified that the ex-copper at the front who was leading the session had nothing good to say about faith, religion and belief.
Absent from his warnings about radicalisation was any talk of faith being the foundation of many of our community spaces. In a scene reminiscent of Monty’s Python’s Life of Brian, it was all just a bit: “What has religion ever done for us?”
And I also despair about the religious literacy among our staff in college, which appears not to be all that it should be. But, ever one to take on a challenge, I have been running some faith forums. We take it a faith at a time. The sessions have been encouragingly well attended. After emphasising that this was a safe space for any questions, the debates have been wonderfully supportive.
But still there is a suspicion of faith and religious belief, even among our most liberal and inclusive staff. The old adage of “don’t discuss religion and politics” seems to pervade. One of the most telling moments of our discussion happened right at the end of a session.
I wasn’t brought up in the Christian faith; I ended up there partly as a result of a conversion experience at school at the age of 14. It struck me that if I were at school now and suddenly came to a point of faith as I did back then, all sorts of referrals would have to be made about me. I’d probably end up on some sort of Prevent danger list.
I said to one of my colleagues: “Faith was the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed my life, my focus and my direction, it was transformative and empowering. Coming to faith, or going deeper with their faith, could be the best thing that ever happens to some students. But I worry that we’d have to phone the police if it happened.”
This came as a shock for many in the room, who had never thought that someone converting to a religion or becoming more religious could actually be a good and positive thing, rather than something to be worried about. I worry that in our culture of fear of faith, we will disempower our young people from expressing any sort of pride in their beliefs and prevent them from embracing their own faith more deeply.
There are 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists, 28 million Sikhs and 14 million Jews in the world – and that’s only the major religions. If faith was only a bad thing, a violent thing and a force for evil and destruction, we’d all be dead by now.
Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College @revkatebottley