Is the river of faith flowing?

On the fourteenth of March 2012, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi made an incredibly tactful speech, “The role of faith in society” (Ebor Lecture Series 6, 2012). She was there to stand up for the Christian faith in Britain and Europe rather than advocate only for her Muslim faith. She was there to oppose militant secularism rather than deny secularism altogether as well as to call for seats for all faiths at the table of public debate, rather than there being privileges solely for the Muslim faith or any other faith group.  

The presence of faith in public life matters. That, I concur. Ensuring the voices of faith in public life is what Warsi most likely aimed to do with her speech. I find the analogy of a river she used throughout her speech to be remarkable. I will reflect upon this analogy and discuss her words through the lens of an ethnic Chinese Buddhist who has spent most of her years in Asia and a few in the United States. My responses are not faith or country-specific. The terms “faiths” and “religions” will be used interchangeably. 

The River

Warsi’s reminiscence of her father’s words is striking. He asked herto see my religious identity, my faith, as a river that changes its appearance according to the bed on which it flows. The river reflecting the colour and the texture of the bed.” The river acts as a metaphor for her Muslim faith which she has been able to learn and practise confidently over the years. This is made possible only because, as she elaborated, “my country – the bed over which the river of my faith flowed – had a strong Christian identity”. The riverbed has “defined, shaped and gave me confidence in my own faith”. In turn, this strong river of faith reflects the “principles and values” of the bed. 

In her speech, there are four major points in this order: 1) The relevance of faith, 2) Christian Europe, 3) Faith under attack, and 4) Faith at the table.

“Faith at the table”, that is to say that faith should have a seat at the table in public life, this is her goal. This is justified by “the relevance of faith” in which she acknowledges the ways in which faith has contributed to the development of her country, to the expansion of human minds and to social goods such as charities and education. All of these are visible, not only in Britain, but also “Christian Europe”. However, nowadays “faith (is) under attack” from two fronts. One is the “well-intentioned liberal elite who think that by marginalising faith in society they are creating a space for all faiths”. The second is worse, which is from faith deniers “who make a religion out of criticising religions”. Their “intolerant secularism”, which bears the trait of totalitarian regime, is sweeping across Europe

Her message, simplified and reworded in her father’s analogy, is that we have to keep the bed wide and open to allow the river to flow. On this note, I do not disagree. In fact, I will add some flavours to some of her arguments in the hope that they may resonate.

Water Volume

Warsi refuted the study by Richard Dawkins which reported that half of the self-claimed Christians did not read the Bible. She stated that: “You cannot quantify what the Holy Father described as the ultimate mystery… The transcendent truth.”

Being a Buddhist myself, I completely agree with Warsi that faith cannot be simply quantified. Whether a person is affiliated to a church or how often they pray does not necessarily tell of their connection with God or any higher power. A person who says he does not belong to any religion may still go to a local church, monastery or mosque for solace when in bereavement, and develop deep spiritual connections in those few moments. Similarly, I personally know parents who have converted their faith just to improve their child’s chance of being admitted to an elite Catholic school.

Warsi claimed, “I see the evidence of this every day in the UK”, faith-based charities, faith schools, acts of human kindness, and so on, are the valuable expressions of faith in public life. The questions that remain are: how many others see the same, and why do some not see the same?

Using the river analogy, I would inquire as to the composition of the river. A river needs water, and its quality and volume are equally important. Strategically, volume helps us to build up a strong base to attain the ultimate goal: a seat at the table of public debate. Faith needs support, not only from the current faith followers, but more importantly from the young and upcoming ones. It can be surmised that the future of faith lies in the younger generations. In the 36th Report of British Social Attitudes (BSA) in 2019, its figure 1 shows that the percentages of the age groups “18 to 24” and “25 to 34” affiliated with the Church of England/Anglican churches are 1 and 3 respectively (Curtice et al., 2019, p. 22). Reading these figures together with the study by Voas and Crockett (2004, quoted by Curtice et al., 2019, p. 21) concluding that two non-religious parents usually “successfully transmit their lack of religion”, whereas two religious parents have only one half of this chance to pass their religion on, the outlook is not promising.

Reputed quantitative surveys are revealing and the numbers should not be ignored or taken lightly. It is clear that there will be fewer and fewer people who will think as Warsi does. This implies that there will be less and less people who support our call for a seat at the table of public debate.

In the context of the river analogy, this can be interpreted as a drought where the water is drying up and there is a decrease in volume. Eventually, the river will run dry.

Water Quality  

Warsi attributes “faith under attack” to secularism. She does not agree with the mild secularists who think that “they are creating a space for all faiths” by downplaying faith in society. She warns of the rise of “intolerant secularism” across Europe. This group of “anti-religionists, faith deniers” brings “repression” such as: no mention of Christianity in the European Constitution, the lack of religious symbols in government buildings, and no funding to faith schools. These “closed-mind” people “make a religion out of criticising religion”.

Broadly speaking, secularism is the advocacy for separation of religion from, not only the state, but also other facets of public life. It aspires to be a protector of freedom of religion, equalities and fairness. Secularisation denotes a process by which the importance of religious values and establishments are declining at both societal and individual levels.  

Religious followers and practitioners hardly welcome secularism. However, I see it slightly differently from a Buddhist perspective.

As with other phenomena, secularism is a product of both causes and conditions. Modernisation gives rise to capitalism, rationalisation, nation states, equality, human rights, individualism, and secularisation (and secularism), all of which are intertwined among themselves and impact one another (Woodhead and Patridge, 2002, pp. 1-15). From a Buddhist perspective, all of these political, economic and social factors are causes and conditions. The over-dominance and power abuse of faith itself is also one of the causes. The recent terrorist attacks by extreme Muslims, the atrocities by Buddhists on the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and the child sexual abuses by clergymen are just some examples of this. 

Causes and conditions do not work in a logical sequence, they are instead intertwined in a cyclical fashion. All matters go through a life cycle of four phases: formation, existence, decay and emptiness. A problem breeds a solution, which becomes another problem later; religion and secularism are no exceptions. Whilst secularism counteracts an overdose of religion, it is facing its challenges as well.

Laicite is a long-cherished principle upheld in the Article 1 of the French Constitution. Neither the government nor religion should meddle in each other’s affairs. In the meantime, this does not disavow the people’s freedom of religion.

Since France banned full-face veils in public areas, except in private cars or places of worship in April 2011, Laicite has been under criticism by Muslims, liberal thinkers and human rights activists. A recent BBC Radio programme “Has French secularism gone too far?” (BBC 2020) discusses how Laicite, which originates from a law of 1905, should be appropriately applied in contemporary society.6

Warsi rightly alerts us about “intolerant secularism”. We have to be on guard because religions are “being persecuted, repressed, silenced and censored” in some parts of the world. This is excessive, but how should we, as people of faith, deal with secularism in general? 

To me, voices against religion are bound to exist. Secularism is a critical force in opposition to the mono control of religious groups in public spheres such as: government and politics, education, ethics and morality, and even belief. Is it possible for us to turn it around and make it a check and balance against our mistakes and even our downfall? If faith groups hope to gain a seat in public life, and hope to remain in this position in a competitive public sphere, then they will have to come to the public and put forth answers to modern issues. Secularism is, in a way, a motivator and a mirror in which we can reflect and improve for this purpose. After all, as we live in a free society and we hope this will continue to be the case; we will have to accept the existence of both religion and secularism. I do not believe that either can erase the otherIn fact, they should not aim to erase the other because they can serve to check against one another to achieve, hopefully, some sense of equilibrium. Seeing and thinking always in duality or dichotomy leads us to be intolerant.  

In the context of the river analogy, secularism is an alarm to remind us to clean up to ensure water quality and therefore make the river healthy. 

River Bed

“What truly enabled me to learn about my faith and to practice it was that my country the bed over which the river of my faith flowed had a strong Christian identity”, Warsi said and believed. As a person who received a Christian education from kindergarten through to secondary school, and who is a Buddhist from Hong Kong, I could not agree with her more on the instrumental role that a country plays in providing an open space for faith.

On the other hand, a strong faith identity of a country is not necessarily a blessing. Warsi, living in Britain, has been leading a life with many freedoms. Iran, however, is a country on the other end of spectrum.

In her speech, Warsi diligently mentions the good values, services and deeds that faith has been delivering. On the contrary, statistics show a picture of very moderate, if not low, public confidence in religious organisations. According to the BSA 36 (2019), only 11% of the public express “complete” or “a great deal” of confidence in “churches and religious organisations”. 59% have “some” or “little” confidence. 35% think that “religious organisations have too much power / far too much power” whereas 63% hold the view that “religions bring more conflicts than peace” (Curtice et al., 2019, pp. 32-34). 

Faith must have a voice in public life. In the meantime, faith groups must make it loud and clear that the voice is definitely not aiming to intervene in national affairs or to gain power for its own benefit. The voice is aimed to facilitate our role in social services and, more importantly, to help create a level playing field for all.

I will offer some thought on how faith could go on to improve public perception and to strengthen public relations.

Firstly, faith should be more responsive. If Warsi talks about the relevance of faith, then she (and all people of faith) should make faith relevant to this age. Otherwise, the world is going to leave us behind. Human rights, equality, freedom of religion, are some of the concepts that permeate our socio-economic landscape. Which of these issues should faith groups attempt to embrace and how are they to go about it?

Sebastian Kim, as Richard Noake (2013, pp. xvi-xvii) quotes, suggests that “the fact that theology is not ‘neutral’ does not disqualify it from participation in public discussion; on the contrary, because of its distinctive perfective, theological finding can make an effective contribution to public issues”.8 He says it so well, faith has its own unique values to maintain. The issue is that it should be more aware of and responsive to current public concerns. The Church of England announced that a review of the Church’s attitude to sex, sexuality, marriage and gender would be completed by early 2022. This is a good start, though it comes a bit late.

Secondly, faith should be more open. Faith’s purpose is to serve mankind. Openness in engaging people regardless of their identities, and in dialogue with them is what faith must learn to do when urging for a seat in public life. We may not be able to convince others, we will be rejected in some cases. However, no matter what, we must explain our values and clarify our positions in an open and rational manner. Secularists have a point when they warn us: no monopolisation. 

This is an age of diversity. In Diana Eck’s words, “encountering that diversity is pluralism” (Harvard University, no date). Her four-point definition of pluralism offers good advice. Pluralism is: “1) not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity, 2) not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference, 3) not relativism, but the encounter of commitments, and 4) based on dialogue” (Harvard University, no date).

Faith thrives in an open country; it helps create that open space by being a model of public space itself. In the context of the river analogy, conditions of the bed are reflected in the water it is holding.  


For the wellbeing of all, I fervently support Warsi’s championing for faith to occupy a place in public life. The success of this depends upon strong approval across society. Facing a decline in the religious population, public confidence, as well as the onset of secularism, faith is fighting an uphill battle. People of faith must work diligently, internally and externally and act sincerely and reasonably to gain the support they need. 

Buddhism is nontheistic, Buddha guides us but we work out merits ourselves to reach the enlightenment as he did. I do not believe that a public seat will be bestowed by God or higher power, it has to be hard-earned by us. In Warsi’s speech, her repeated emphasis on the significant and glorious aspects of faith in society gives me a sense of this being “feel-good” and complacent. Her absolutist attitude against surveys and studies, and against secularism gives me the impression of stubbornness. If we work inflexibly, and if we are blind to realities, then we are bound to lose the battle.

I have suggested some points for thought. Much more should be explored, examined and debated in earnest. Water and bed maintenance are critical for the “river”. It is never too late to begin working towards this goal. 

Sayeeda Warsi reflects upon her father’s analogy and I will end with a modified version of it; The river bed is a public space for faith, it is characterised by the public’s acceptance and willingness to accept. The river is faith, it is a convergence of many streams, that is, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and so on. Water volume is essential, yet, the river bed and the water are interdependent. If the river brings waste and debris then this may sink to the river bed. As time goes by, the river will be shallow and the water will become fetid and murky. Good maintenance of water quality and riverbed are, therefore, equally important. 


BBC (2020) Has French secularism gone too far? BBC World Service, 10 Dec 08:06. Available at: (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

Curtice, J. et al (ed.) (2019) British Social Attitudes: The 36th Report.  London: The National Centre for Social ResearchAvailable at:  (Accessed: 3 January 2021).   

Ebor Lectures Series 6 (2012)  Baroness Warsi. The role of faith in society.  Available at:  (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

Harvard University (no date) The Pluralism Project. Available at:  (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

Noake, R. (2013) ‘Introduction: public theology in action’, in Noake, R. and Buxton, N. (ed.) Religion, society and God.  London: SCM Press, pp. xv-xxvi.

Woodhead, L. and Patridge, C. (2002) ‘Introduction’, in Woodhead, L., Partridge, C., and Kawanam, H. (ed.)  Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations.  London: Routledge, pp. 1-15.