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Starting the conversation on faith and belief

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A great place to work, Civil Service Leaders
Head and shoulders shot of Clare Moriarty
Clare Moriarty, Permanent Secretary, Defra

First, a huge thank you to everyone who commented on or responded to my first blog in my role as Permanent Secretary Diversity Champion for Faith & Belief.  The interest it generated certainly confirmed my sense that there is a real appetite for more discussion about these issues, and for people to be able to bring their faith (or belief, or non-belief) to work.

It also revealed that the complexities in this area start right away with terminology. Some people questioned whether I should be talking about religion rather than faith, while others raised the issue of non-belief. A quick Google search was enough to convince me that there is no right answer here. So, rather than get lost in definitions, I’ll just say that I’m using the term ‘faith and belief’ in a broad sense to cover religion, personal faith and belief in its widest sense, including value systems that people may not consider to be beliefs. I hope you’ll forgive the shorthand, and I’m sure you’ll tell me if it doesn’t work for you.

Faith, Belief, Values thought bubbles

Shared values

I’m already finding myself part of, and aware of, more conversations about faith and belief. Faith comes up quite regularly in discussion with my top team, who between them span a variety of Christian and Jewish traditions, including a licensed lay minister and the senior sponsor of the Jewish Network. Charlie Hutton, one of my Environment Agency colleagues, wrote a great blog about how she has recently become more comfortable talking about her faith. I’ve talked with one of my mentees, who is Muslim, about her experience of unconscious bias and the shared values of Christianity and Islam. And in casual conversations people will often now tell me about the church they go to or a faith event they’ve attended.

You might say that – of course – now I’m wearing the badge of Permanent Secretary Champion, people are more likely to talk to me about faith and belief. And that may well be part of the story. But I think there’s something else as well. The important thing is that my appointment has signalled a welcome for conversations that people want to have but perhaps haven’t felt able to.

This was borne out for me by in another recent blog by a colleague working overseas. Although not religious himself, his blog reflected on the importance of religion in the countries he was working in, and suggested that his agency was “culturally Christian”, despite not being a religious organisation. This prompted him to start a conversation with colleagues about the role that faith and religion plays in their lives, and he was astonished by how much discussion it generated.

'Starting small'

So maybe all it takes to start shifting the dial is for a few people to come out and start talking. As I said in my previous blog, that’s not as easy as it sounds in an area that can feel like a minefield to navigate. But one consistent message I’m hearing is that many people would like others to understand better what their faith or belief involves and what it means to them.

On the principle of ‘starting small’, I suggest that we begin by encouraging a series of conversations about the practice of different faiths and belief systems. That may be at the level of ‘time, dress and food’ – i.e. the festivals observed in different faiths, customs around dress and food – rather than immediately jumping into deeper discussions. But I think it will help build the foundation for a sustained increase in the profile of faith and belief in the Civil Service.

To help make this happen I have asked my fellow Permanent Secretaries to nominate a departmental champion for faith and belief. The departmental champions will form a network across the Civil Service to guide and shape work on faith and belief, as well as providing visible support within their departments. Do please look out for information in your department about who your faith and belief champion is, and let them know if you’re interested in helping make the conversations happen.

And do keep the comments coming!

Follow Clare on Twitter: @ClareMoriarty.

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  1. Comment by Sub Dey posted on

    Thank you, Clare, for your bravery and vision in taking forward the important matter of faith in the civil service. I agree with you about people being rather reluctant to discuss their faiths lest they be ridiculed. However, there is tremendous potential in people sharing their experiences and understanding of their faiths, and your network will hopefully provide a great opportunity for this to happen.

    I would like to take part in your network and would welcome how I can do this. Thank you.

  2. Comment by Terry Hegarty posted on

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s great the Civil Service discusses these issues. I find it very easy to start a conversation about faith and belief with colleagues. It helps that colleagues are interested in the situations I find myself in and the realities I deal with volunteering for Hartlepool Town Pastors and helping out at a weekly community meal in church.

    Whilst I deal with serious issues in these activities I have fun as well.

    Feeding people, listening or helping folks who get into difficulties after a night out expresses my beliefs. Demonstrating what I believe in by through what I do with my spare time helps. The great news is that help and hospitality is common across all faiths.

    I don't get hung up on labels. I do, personally, avoid the word "religion". For many it has negative implications, filled with regulations, fear and censure. There's nothing more honest than a reveller with 50 years of life behind them telling you at 2.30am what they think of “religion”.

    Equally I think places of worship come in all shapes and sizes, from open air to grand mosque or cathedral. My small Baptist church looks like a single story flat-roofed garage rather than a church.

    Whatever the preferred term, the building we go to, or the belief system or faith we follow, we all need space to be open and to discuss and learn from each other.

    I work at the DfE and see many letters from parents and public expressing worries and concerns about religious education. Many seem unwilling or frightened to learn about different beliefs or faiths. I think it is important for us, as the Civil Service, to lead the way.

    Keep blogging.

  3. Comment by Alex Rattee posted on

    Thanks for this Clare. As a new joiner to the Civil Service (and the world of work) it's encouraging to see this emphasis on not having to exclude my Christian faith/identity from what I bring to the workplace. Especially since it was often said that the Civil Service wasn't a place where it was easy to bring your faith identity to work.

    Do keep the blogs coming!

  4. Comment by Jules Fowles posted on

    I also don't understand why we have changed from the perfectly adequate term "Religion OR Belief". My religion is not a faith; the two terms are not interchangeable.

  5. Comment by Daniel Stapleton - HM Revenue & Customs posted on

    Surely Religion is the right word to use?

    I read with interest your comment 'And in casual conversations people will often now tell me about the church they go to or a faith event they’ve attended.'

    How does that comment sit with people whose place or building of religious workship is a Mosque or Temple? From memory on maps, the Ordnance Survey no longer used the word 'church' but the more generic phrase 'place of religious worship'.

    While the place of religious worship I attend is a church, in the traditional sense, it neither has a tower nor a steeple. Some of my friends in the office who have a different religious belief from myself, will share with me details of a service they attended in a temple (not necessarily the temple they normally go to but rather that of a family member living in another part of the country). Your comments though suggests that I go to a church but they go to a faith event which surely is misleading if not insulting to them? The reality is that a church or a temple (and a mosque) is a place of religious worship, though sometimes used for non-religious purposes.

    I think the term Religion or Belief is a better term than 'faith, belief, values. However, there is an argument that a better descriptive term still would be: Religion, Belief or Non-Belief. Alternatively how about: Religion, Faith, Belief or Non-Belief?

    So, no, your term doesn't work for me and seems a deliberate attempt to avoid using the word 'religion' which given has a legal standing and has a clearer meaning than faith. Terminology is important because it is linked to a clear definition and consequently clear understanding.

  6. Comment by Janine Toulson posted on

    I love this blog. I recently a read a book by Steve Tomlinson called from memory Black sheep and Prodigals. It was a really refreshing book. He is a vicar but he is very open in his beliefs and he made a lot of sense to me in his views of theology. He talked about not worrying about the past, or whether the basic Christian beliefs of virgin birth and resurrection are 'true' but to get on with NOW and helping people and following the model of Jesus whatever faith or non-faith you belong to.

  7. Comment by I'm not superstitious posted on

    "I hope you’ll forgive the shorthand, and I’m sure you’ll tell me if it doesn’t work for you."
    It doesn't work.

  8. Comment by Chris Houlden posted on

    Thanks Claire for promoting discussion of this often difficult area. But I find it concerning that the Permanent Secretary Diversity Champion for Faith & Belief needed, and seemingly went no further than, "a quick Google search" on the importance of terminology. You say there is no right answer but there is and the equality legislation provides it.

    'Religion or belief' is the term used in equality and human rights legislation and it should be used generally because it is the simplest fully inclusive term. ... Using 'religion or belief' rather than 'faith' or a similar term not only conforms with the correct, legal, terminology: it has many practical implications too.
    (Quoted from )

    If people are to have a conversation, it helps to use a common language.

  9. Comment by Stuart Holttum posted on

    Why is it suddenly "faith and belief", when the approved nomenclature for many years has been "Religion OR Belief" - the term that is used in all legislation? Why does the Civil Service feel the need to differ from what has been a hard-fought for term, on what (appears to be) the whim of one person?

  10. Comment by anon (fear of faith is real) posted on

    As someone who has studied, at university level, religion, faith and belief (and their absence, alternatives and the conflicts that can exist) the thought that someone can make a judgement on these concepts on the basis of a "quick google" is disheartening.

    The issue of what to do when person a's "whole self" is incompatible with person b's "whole self" is yet to be addressed - who will sit in judgement of whose "whole self" is more valid.

    • Replies to anon (fear of faith is real)>

      Comment by JD posted on

      I agree with the 'who's self' takes lead scenario.

      I was once very religious and now class my self more atheist now.

      I left my faith because I could no longer suspend my logical thought process compared to having 'a faith'

      while I don't wish to discourage peoples faith, how can I be me and bring myself to work and be honest in my feelings with people of faith/religion without seeming like I'm being dis-respectful?

      Surely, sometimes it's best not to mention our own personal perceived truths/beliefs our 'whole selves' for appearing dis-respectful.

  11. Comment by Liam Sheridan posted on

    Thanks, Clare, for this blog and for your honesty about the difficulties you've been encountering in your new role about issues such as terminology. I think encouraging conversations about events important to those of faith (or religion!?) is a great start. It's so sad when many feel unable to talk about things that are important in their lives for fear of calling offence and the Civil Service has a wonderful opportunity here to (as it so often does) be an exemplar for a better way of doing things, by allowing everyone to be their whole selves at work and respecting others' differences at the same time.