Defining the new normal – is there a place for religion?

Two-thirds of Brits barely know their neighbours, describing them as “strangers”. Almost three quarters (73%) don’t know their neighbours’ names, and half don’t feel part of a ‘neighbourly community’.

“73% don’t know their neighbours’ names” 

Think about it – what are your neighbours’ names? (Just saying “noisy guy from 3B” or “lady with the dog in 4a” does not count.) Apart from Eastenders, the era of everyone knowing their neighbours’ intimate dealings is long past. You could live next to the same group of people for years and not know a single thing about them. In a big city, we can feel empowered by anonymity, but other times we long for human companionship and don’t know where to start. A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross reveals that over 9 million people (roughly the population of London) in the UK across all adult ages are either always or often lonely.

“9 million people in the UK across all adult ages are either always or often lonely”

In the last six months, the UK’s battle against coronavirus has demonstrated the importance of community and the need for a holistic approach to wellbeing for people to reach a state of “good health”. 

During the world’s pre-coronavirus viral crisis, frontline workers tackling Ebola in Africa relied on local peacebuilders and trusted relationships to battle the virus. 

The community network was essential as those most at risk lived in countries that had emerged from civil war and political unrest not long before. As a result, the relationships within and between communities and with government institutions were still fragile so a different means of communication had to be found. 

“We can provide health services, we can have clinical care, but stopping the transmission is led by the community.” Sharon Reader, senior adviser, community engagement and accountability in Africa, IFRC

So what does this mean for us? Seven years after the Ebola crisis, what have we learned? 

July 4th ushered in the latest release of lockdown eases, and many gasping for a drink raced to pubs and local restaurants. Pubs aren’t the only epicentre of British culture; the hospitality industry is one of the largest employers, employing  3.2 million people and generating £38 billion in taxation to fund vital national and local services.

Alongside pubs, restaurants, and hairdressers, religious buildings were also allowed to reopen last weekend – but in a country where secularism is the fastest growing “belief”,  why prioritise opening these religious institutions? 

Religious freedom is a human right that is embedded in our constitution, protecting both the religious and non-religious alike from a forced set of beliefs. In their doctrines, many religious groups encourage serving the community, so whether you ascribe to a religion or not, the likelihood is your community has somehow been positively impacted by religious people.

Religious groups have played a particularly important role amidst Coronavirus; a round table of faith leaders across the UK gathered together to address the pandemic. As we recently discussed in previous articles, socioeconomic factors play a large part in determining one’s likelihood of catching the virus. With a long-running history of helping society’s most disadvantaged groups, faith groups are in the heartland of the outbreak. Community leaders can, therefore, raise awareness, provide information, offer physical relief, and clarify misunderstandings for those who may not be able to access government services. 

“With a long-running history of helping society’s most disadvantaged groups, faith groups are in the heartland of the outbreak”

Faith leaders are rooted in their communities and understand their challenges and needs. Maximising the reach and effectiveness of our faith-based aid networks around the world is vital to effectively fight the spread of Coronavirus.

Mental health has also risen significantly during the pandemic. In considering all aspects of mental health, reopening religious institutions recognises the spiritual and mental health benefits of individuals being able to finally practise their faith in a place of worship again.

Communities Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said “that ensuring places of worship can open again, beginning with individual prayer, has been my priority. Their contribution to the common good of our country is clear, as places of solace, comfort, stability and dignity. And the need for them is all the greater as we weather the uncertainties of the pandemic.”

The Chair of the West London Buddhist Centre, Bodhilila, shared the following about her experience in lockdown:

“With the pandemic and crisis, and a lot of the things happening in the world, it’s been really hard – people are very much faced with a lot of difficult situations, and are sharing the most painful stories. What brings me joy is hearing these same people share that the teachings and meditations are helping them to focus on the meaningful things in life encouraging them to do things differently and stop chasing after what is unimportant – even if they aren’t a Buddhist – we have people coming from other traditions or no belief at all – meditation is giving people the tools and skills to manage stress at a basic level but through this uncertainty, it is helping to transform their lives through a new perspective, clarity, and the connection to something more positive. We are connecting communities, developing more depth and breathe – allowing people to build those connections that the pandemic has taken away from them.” 

“We are connecting communities, developing more depth and breathe – allowing people to build those connections that the pandemic has taken away from them.” 

Another group who have stayed active in the pandemic is the UK Rastafari movement. The Founder of the UK Rastafari movement shared:

“We have provided the medium that they [those impacted by the coronavirus] can reach out to, whether physical or social, we aim to help them find resolve and if we can’t we will signpost them to the relevant services, we are going to see the people that no-one else will, preparing food and distributing it to the community – we are an avenue of ongoing support to sustain them and help them to rebuild.” 

From left to right – Food preparation to distribute to the borough of Southwark and Lambeth, fresh produce, co-founder of Rastafari Movement UK

Religious institutions are pillars in crises like the coronavirus because of their crucial role in accessing and supporting not just their own immediate communities but all those who may have fallen through the gaps of government schemes. The debate between church and state may be a contentious one but what is increasingly clear is that protecting the human right of religious freedom means investing in a more integrated and comprehensive view of public health. The power of community is proven in the reach of these groups and cannot be overlooked when we transition into life post the virus.