The former UK prime minister Tony Blair remains a controversial figure almost ten years after he left office, not least because of his role as one of the architects of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003. Improbably, Blair began his political retirement by repositioning himself as a peacemaker. He served as envoy of the so-called Quartet to bring peace to the Middle East. He also founded the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to promote inter-religious dialogue and converted to Catholicism.
These ostensible contradictions made many wonder about Tony Blair’s stance towards religion. While in office, his press secretary Alastair Campbell famously stopped an interview with the Prime Minister stating, “We don’t do God”. Out of office Blair has more scope to express his personal views. In 2012 he resurfaced into the spotlight as a panelist at the Westminster Faith Debates with some insightful remarks regarding his personal faith and its role in his political decision making. We learned he never prayed with George W. Bush (as rumoured) but did pray alone before taking momentous decisions on UK military actions. I was part of the audience of (with?) Tony Blair that night and was particularly struck by two of his observations:
What I notice in the world today is two types of religious feeling … One is a religious feeling where your faith drives you to acts of compassion in the service of others and you see that across all the faiths, and the other is a feeling where faith becomes a badge of identity almost in exclusion to others.
Some background: The Westminster Faith Debates were organised by Professor Linda Woodhead as part of the Religion & Society research programme funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and Lancaster University. I was part of one of the projects funded by the programme. In our study we used experiments to examine the effects of two different dimensions of religion on a person’s social behaviour: the role of individual religious values or `religiosity’, and the role of someone’s particular religious group affiliation. In short, the way someone treats others may depend on how strongly religious the person is, but also on whether these others are of the same or of a different religious community. We found, as Blair suggested, these two dimensions of an individual’s religion have their own effects. Later in the debate Blair made another telling remark:
I find a connection with people who are of faith, even though a different faith to my own, precisely because there is a certain space, intellectually, philosophically and emotionally, that we can congregate around.
I call this the Blair Hypothesis: essentially he suggested that one’s religiosity in itself can be a group identity, irrespective of which religious faith one belongs to. It suggests that highly religious people from two different religious groups may have more in common than do a staunch believer and a mere passenger within the same religion. We tested the Blair hypothesis in our experiment and found support: more religious participants of any religious denomination believed more strongly (than less religious ones) that highly religious others of any religious group can be trusted. In short, there is stronger trust among highly religious people no matter what particular faith groups they belong to.
Our paper has a number of other results, such that more religious people tend to attach more significance to what social groups others belong to: more highly religious people discriminate more against those of other social groups and also show greater favouritism towards those of the same faith. Surprisingly, neither our own nor other people’s study find support that religiosity in its own right makes people kinder towards others, like the proverbial Good Samaritan.