Speaking to a Montreal audience Friday, former British prime minister Tony Blair discussed the importance of inter-faith dialogue as McGill formally launched its partnership with the Faith and Globalization Initiative. Established three years ago by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the initiative is aimed at creating an intellectual and academic framework for understanding the relationship between faith and globalization.
In a discussion moderated by CBC host and McGill Religious Studies graduate Evan Solomon, Blair explained the ideology of the initiative, and fielded questions from the audience on the changing role of religion in society.
For Blair, globalization is both an opportunity and an unstoppable force. He also believes it is a phenomenon that has exacerbated the need for greater religious understanding, and the inclusion of religion in the realm of politics, he said.
“Does religious faith become a means of providing civilizing values to civilization and thereby be a force of progress, or does religious faith become a badge of identity in opposition to those who aren’t of the same faith?” asked Blair. “I think this is the dominant question of the 21st century.”
According to Blair, distinctions between left-right political ideologies are increasingly subordinate to the basic question of whether a society is open or closed to cultural and religious differences. Successful integration and public policy will rely on societies’ attitudes toward diversity, and their ability to find commonality irrelevant to one’s faith, or lack thereof, said the former prime minister.
“If you want to be a leader today in politics, in business, in civic society, you can not be religiously ignorant. You may not agree with it, you may not even like it, but you’ve got to know about it,” said Blair. “Even if you don’t believe in someone’s faith, you can respect their right to believe, that it is an alternative path to salvation, and in respecting that you get quite close to respecting their spirituality.”
Blair maintained that religiosity continues to grow despite predictions that it would decrease as countries became more prosperous.
“Within debates about our society, religious faith is an issue, it is in the public space. So the question is not whether it is there; the question is what it is doing when it is there and what are the rules that guide proper debate.”
McGill is currently the only Canadian university to be invited to participate in the initiative, which includes seven other universities such as Yale, Durham (U.K.), and the National University of Singapore. In August, five McGill students travelled to Singapore to discuss inter-university collaboration within the initiative.
Earlier Friday morning, Blair spoke to a 300-level special topics course on Religion and Globalization co-taught by professors Daniel Cere and Ellen Aitken. Cere explained that faculty members stepped back and the “whole class was run by the students.” Students from a variety of disciplines conducted interviews with Blair on the intersections between religion, law, gender, and globalization.
According to Cere, a member of Blair’s team, Drew Collins, said that this particular experience was one of the best exchanges with university students that Blair had had.
Cere added that the course methodology was fairly unique: each week, students write a 500-word blog entry, and they are encouraged to interact with each other on the internet.
“Some of these blogs will go up on a secure blog site that will allow these students to interact with students at Yale, Peking, other parts of the world – pretty appropriate given the theme: religion and globalization,” he said.
Cere felt that the initiative signalled the beginning of a new program of research and study at McGill.
“There are so many areas where religion interacts with culture – religion and law, religion and politics, religion and gender issues – these points of interaction will probably be future areas of research avenues for teaching and collaboration,” said Cere.
Juliette Dupre, a U1 Arts student, was a member of the McGill contingent who participated in the Singapore conference.
“Especially considering how important religion is to such a large number of people, not only in their private lives, but as an influence over the way that they think and act and how they choose to live, this is an extremely important initiative,” said Dupre.
“I think this is a good start on an important problem, and I think it’s an ambitious start. Ultimately it is a very interesting initiative for McGill to be involved in.”