In a guest post, Martin Weightman, Director of The All Faiths Network, finds serious shortcomings in the report of the Bloom Review
There is much to be said, and has already been said, about the Bloom Review – written by Colin Bloom, who was appointed in 2019 as the Faith Engagement Advisor by Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister, to do an Independent Faith Engagement Review. The report was issued earlier this year.
In this article, one particular aspect regarding generalisations about smaller religious movements is examined.
The “good” from the report is that it very clearly states that government must interact with religions and beliefs, that they are an overriding positive influence on society and that government (local and national) and other sectors of society (police, army, education system) are not sufficiently educated about beliefs for it to properly understand and engage with them. There is much positive and encouraging language alongside proposals calling for greater interaction and education to take place and Mr. Bloom is commended for this. These recommendations should not be underestimated, but for the sake of brevity they are not covered further here.
The Bad (and moving into the Ugly)
However, Bloom’s analysis of believers is simply bad. He categorises believers into three different types:
“The first are ‘true believers’ who, regardless of their faith, are sincere, devout and peaceful. Government can and should work with true believers. The second are ‘non-believers’ who, like true believers, are generally sincere, peaceful and decent. True believers and non-believers are part of the solution to improving society. The third are ‘make-believers’. Make-believers are generally the cause of most of the problems that government encounters in the faith space. Make-believers are often motivated by ego, money, prestige or power and abuse their position to promote themselves or their causes, clothing them with religion to give them divine legitimacy. Make-believers are a problem, both for government and for the communities they claim to represent.”
It is of course this allusion to “make-believers” that is the problem. It is simply a bad, ill-defined and unsubstantiated category that opens the door to discrimination. Indeed, by creating a new “category” of religious adherents – the make-believers – it leads an unknowing reader into a trap of misconception. Apparently, this category of believers are not extremists (as they are dealt with separately in the report: see below). They are, however,
“… people of faith [who have] become caught up in high-demand groups or destructive cults which employ abusive or coercive means of maintaining membership, this can cause huge damage to individuals and their communities.”
In a few sentences Bloom descends into a rabbits’ warren of ill-defined and contradicting terminology, mimicking attempts from the last 50 years by anti-cult movements, to form a generalised, cliched interpretation of disfavoured religious movements, conveniently dropping them into a single basket, tarring them with the ‘cult’ brush, making them targets for sensationalist media and potentially for government discrimination on the top of all that.
Fundamental to human rights is the freedom to choose. To dismiss free choice as coercive and brainwashing (as he does elsewhere in the report) is simply a dismissal and violation of the UN standards and specifically as outlined in its General Comment No. 22 on Art. 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which notes that:
“Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community” (para 2).
There are, of course, instances of abuse within all groups, including religious groups, new and old, small and large – many occurring within mainstream religions have been in the news these last years – and regardless of religious favour, are rightly dealt with (or should be) through the legal process. The gaping hole in Bloom’s proposition is that the category of make-believers appears to have been created not to target illegal activity but to target some vague, generalised category which can be twisted to suit the one wielding the label in order to target individuals and groups of their choice.
The terms “high-demand group”, “destructive cult”, “abusive or coercive means of maintaining membership”, “motivated by ego, money, prestige or power”, “clothing [intentions] with religion to give them divine legitimacy” are all highly loaded expressions which can be interpreted in many ways and which fall far short of international human rights standards.
As an illustration of his point, Bloom alludes to a Christian fringe group and a Muslim group where irregularities have occurred (and this is where it segues into the ugly). He gratuitously throws in the “destructive cults” slur to describe these groups – or groups like them. This broad generalisation has been used for many years to tar religious movements considered to be unfavourable (by a prejudiced beholder) and he perpetuates discrimination against religious minorities by attempting to maintain the illusion that there is an (undefined) range of “dangerous cults”.
These floating signifiers are terms that can be filled with any negative content or connotation by bad players and take us back to a recreation of the “cult wars” of the 1980s, where theories that people were supposed to have been drawn into religious movements through brainwashing, mental manipulation and otherwise overpowering of an individual’s will have since been thoroughly discredited. Make-believers is a regurgitated attempt to give a new lease of life to this type of discrimination against religious minorities. It is therefore vital that we refrain from creating floating signifiers as they only create unfounded negativity.
It is sad to see the many positive recommendations sullied in such a way.
On how the subject of extremist religious movements is covered in the report I make no further comment other than to offer a quote from an article in Law & Religion UK with regard to the report’s treatment of religion.
“Religious extremism is a menace that stalks the world all over. Where crimes are committed, no right-thinking person would say that the law must not take its course even as the right to dissent remains a valuable feature of democratic society. Ultimately, however, it is the balance of this report that is so wrong. The examples given in the Bloom Review do not suggest systematic problems. After all, extremist behaviour exists in all religious communities. A Report such as the Bloom Review is there to guide policy. It is well known that “hard cases make bad law”, and a few odd cases here and there wrongly described as “subversive” or “extremist” will not help guide government policy.”
Looking further into the report, we can see that this “ugly” aspect probably entered into Mr Bloom’s thinking via the European Federation of Centres for Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS). FECRIS, an umbrella organisation based in France, is the only significant organisation in Europe that holds to theories that belittle and denigrate “cults” and perpetuate the targeted attack on religious organisations which they define and target as “cults”. Mr Bloom’s sources appear to ignore the wealth of academic research into religious minorities stretching back over many years: for example, the work carried out by the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM). In this regard, the report falls far short of encompassing international human rights standards and it has suffered because of this.
As to the question raised in the title of the report, Does Government Do God? Mr Bloom has it right in many respects as to how religions and government should relate. Greater cooperation because of the wealth of voluntary support and involvement that is brought to society by religion or belief groups (and here would be included non-believers) and education to improve understanding and value; but on two other points it is lacking: transparency to dispel bias and favouritism and human rights to ensure fairness and justice.
It is on these last two points where the report is weak, and which must be included in any approach that government adopts.