‘Filling the Moral Vacuum’
Historic interfaith conference draws 75 representatives of world religions; participants set agenda to reverse trends of drug abuse, violence, crime and immorality
Those committing crimes are ever younger. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study involving 14,000 youngsters, published in April 2002, found that a third of pupils aged 14 or 15 said they had committed acts of vandalism in the past year, and more than a quarter admitted to shoplifting.
The worst cause of crime, however, is drugs. “Class A” drugs — particularly heroin and cocaine — are behind large numbers of burglaries and thefts; a serious heroin user needs £100 a day to finance the habit. A study referenced in The Independent*1 concluded that as much as 70 per cent of all property crime could be committed to fund addiction. In addition to personal financial loss from theft, drug addiction costs the Treasury an estimated £4 billion a year.
The future does not look better: half of the people in the U.K. aged 16-29 have tried drugs, 25 per cent in the past year, 16 per cent in the past month.*2
According to an ICM poll of 1,000 Britons, published in April 2002, more than five million people regularly use cannabis, 2.4 million take Ecstasy, two million use cocaine and amphetamines, and 426,000 are addicted to heroin.*3
A report “From War to Work: drug treatment, social inclusion and enterprise” said that Britain is in the top five countries worldwide in terms of heroin consumption. Since the 1980s the number of addicts has doubled every four years; in 1998, Britons suffered nearly 3,500 drug-related deaths.
In May 2002, leaders and representatives from more than two dozen religious movements and organizations came together at historic Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead to address social problems of low or non-existent moral values, poor education and drug abuse — problems that pervade all sectors of society.
“Clearly, we have a moral crisis in society,” said Martin Weightman, Director of the European Human Rights Office of the Church of Scientology. “Not just in the U.K. but worldwide.”
“Traditionally,” he said, “religions have been the civilizing influence in society, but recent decades have seen a decline in religious and spiritual values.”
Weightman and officials from other religious denominations took steps to reverse the trend early this year.
In May 2002, 75 leaders and representatives from more than two dozen religious movements and organizations, both old and new, came together with a single purpose to contribute from their faiths and unite with others in the common purpose of raising moral standards.
Entitled “Filling the Moral Vacuum”, the three-day conference from 23-26 May was held at Saint Hill Manor, the British headquarters of the Church of Scientology, and once the home of the religion’s founder,
The main purpose of the conference, organizers said, was to facilitate representatives of all religions cooperating and working together to address social problems of low or non-existent moral values, poor education and drug abuse — problems that pervade all sectors of society.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Association for British Muslims, the Queens Federation of Churches in the U.S., the European Human Rights Office of the Church of Scientology and the Foundation for Religious Tolerance UK.
Prior to meeting, sponsors conducted a survey of religious leaders throughout Europe, which found that the points considered to be the “most urgent to address and resolve” were “declining moral standards” and “drug abuse.” Based on this survey, the theme of the conference was chosen — “filling the moral vacuum.”
“For almost forty years I have been engaged in trying to build up understanding and co-operation between people of different religions,” said Reverend Marcus Braybrooke, President of the World Congress of Faiths and minister of the Church of England, in his keynote speech for the opening of the conference.
“This has never been a purely religious interest — it springs from the conviction that society needs to be based on spiritual and ethical values, but that in our modern world these cannot be based on the teaching of one religion, but on the moral values which the religions share.”
In addition to many religious representatives from around the U.K., delegates came from a variety of nations, including Nigeria, Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, Russia, Belgium, Sweden, France, Poland, U.S.A., Latvia, Croatia, Canada, Spain, Zambia, Germany, Bulgaria and Armenia.
In plenary and breakout sessions, speakers and participants, representing most of the traditional world religions and a number of newer and minority ones, addressed how they define and deal with moral values in their faith, the ways in which society today has fallen away from these values, and solutions to effectively deal with the resultant social problems.
A common theme throughout the conference was that different religions may have different theologies, but they share common goals and are faced with common social maladies and pressures. There was “unity in diversity” and an agreement to work together to help reverse the decline that has been sharply evident in society. A keynote of the conference was the need for action: that moral values must be practiced and not just discussed theoretically — leaders must set the example.
Attention was particularly given to the family as a vital building block of society, and the need to develop ways to communicate values at the level that children and youth can understand and appreciate.
Further, the perception of religion must be improved where needed in order to augment the necessary role of religion in spearheading moral values.
“Media’s portrayal of religion in a negative way should be countered,” said Dr. Shaikh Abdul Mabud, Director of the Islamic Academy and rapporteur for the conference session on “positive actions and future co-operations.”
“To hold religion responsible for social problems stems from a wrong understanding of religion, and also due to wrong messages sometimes given by religious people themselves.”
Points of co-action that were agreed upon by all participants and sponsors included forming a group to continue the purpose of the conference, with chapters around the U.K., Europe and further afield, and an executive committee to coordinate projects that will enable different groups to work together.
Entitled “Filling the Moral Vacuum”, the three-day conference was held at Saint Hill Manor, the British head-quarters of the Church of Scientology. Pictured above: the attendees gathered together in front of historic Sackville College in East Grinstead
A statement was drawn up and signed by many of the delegates (see: “A Call to Reverse the Dangerous Trend”).
Daoud Rosser-Owen, President of the Association for British Muslims, said that attendees agreed to take co-ordinated and individual actions in their own communities, form up an organizing committee to monitor the actions and hold another conference in one year’s time at Saint Hill to report back on the progress made.
“This conference was singular not only because of its huge diversity, but also it was extremely positive. We weren’t too concerned with the minutiae of interfaith organizations. We all focused on the need to transcend the difficulties of racial division, of spiritual ineptitude and of nihilism [entire rejection of the usual beliefs in religion, morals, government, laws, etc],” said His Excellency, Professor Ian Hall, Ambassador-at-large to the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, and himself a devout Anglican. “We transcended those negative attributes with the utmost vigour and flair. Total agreement was reached on all points.”
Professor Hall’s words represented the consensus of all conference participants.
“It was a resounding success,” said Reverend L’Heureux from the Queen’s Federation of Churches, representing 300 Christian churches in the United States. “There was such a willingness to co-operate together constructively and really do something about problems that we are facing in society today.”
Among those who attended was professor Dr. Marco Frenschkowski of the University of Mainz in Germany, who thanked the co-sponsors for an “excellent conference,” noting that “for all participants this will remain a major event in the struggle for inter-religious tolerance and the interfaith movement.”
For many attendees, a highlight of the conference was the multi-faith Sunday Service, one of the most diverse ever held in England. The service was led by a Scientology minister and included a collection of prayers, songs and readings from Muslim, Christian (Church of England, Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal), Jewish, Scientology, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh faiths.
“This was a wonderful religious experience,” said Reverend Janet Kenyon Laveau of the Church of Scientology. “I not only learned something about these different faiths but was able to share in their way of worship as they did in mine.”
On the second night of the conference, the Mayor of East Grinstead, Cllr. Edward Matthews, opened a concert of cultural music welcoming all the attendees to Saint Hill. The concert itself featured a Christian gospel choir, Hindu and Buddhist dancers, a Sri Lankan tabla player and Scientology musicians. The final number, “We are the World”, featured all the musicians performing together with audience participation.
“The international flavour to the conference has given us an impetus for taking this further, as everyone has agreed that it is with love that we can live in harmony, recognising each other’s religion, looking at the commonality of each religion rather than emphasising one’s own faith,” said Dr. Kartar Surindar Singh, Chairman of the UK Sikh Education & Cultural Association. “All religions have some common goal that we want to live in harmony, we want to love each other, and we want to understand each other.”
Many remarked on the value of the diversity of conference attendees.
Mr. Bala Balaraman, a Hindu and the previous chairman of Newham Association of Faiths, said, “The conference was a meeting of humanity where people of diverse religions met in unity. It taught me that people of different religions can meet and understand each other when they discuss problems affecting humanity at large. The interfaith prayers and readings from scriptures of different religions reminded me of the great Hindu utterance: ‘The truth is one but sages call it by different names’.”
Conference co-sponsors and organizers said that the actions launched at the historical conference are being continued and followed up with the attendees throughout the world. They also invite and encourage people of all religions to take their own part to reverse the moral trend in society.
For more information write to “Filling the Moral Vacuum”, Suite 31a, High Street, East Grinstead, West Sussex, RH19 3AF
*1 The Independent, December 10, 2001
*2 The Times, May 22, 2002
*3 Daily Express, April 22, 2002