Finding sources of moral courage in a rapidly changing world

A blog post on our virtual Faith & Belief 2040 conference session on 'Moral Courage', held on 19 November 2020

Faith & Belief 2040

In November 2020, I attended the four-part virtual Faith and Belief 2040 conference, hosted by Cumberland Lodge in collaboration with Humanists UK and the Faith and Belief Forum, and I was particularly inspired by the fourth and final discussion on the topic of ‘Moral Courage’.

What is ‘moral courage’? It can be defined as the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of negative social consequences. This bravery can spring from a sense of ethics, compassion and responsibility, and help people to overcome challenges they face as individuals or as a society. 

In this session, we collectively explored: 

  • What does moral courage mean? 
  • What are the implications of a diversifying faith and belief landscape in the UK for moral courage?
  • How can we build moral courage in a world that is changing so rapidly? 

We heard four presentations from guest speakers, before taking part in small-group discussions and a question-and-answer session. The presentations were given by:

  • Phil Champain (Director, Faith & Belief Forum)
  • Dr Justine Huxley (Director, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace)
  • Bushra Nasir CBE (CEO, Drapers’ Multi-Academy Trust)
  • The Revd Dr Richard Sudworth (Interfaith Advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury)

Education, young people and the role of older generations

Young people can, in one sense, be viewed as ‘rewardable investments’, capable of overcoming the uncertainties in which we find ourselves nowadays; they are the building-blocks for a brighter and stronger future. This raises an important question: what steps can we take to help prepare future generations for 2040 and beyond, to avoid some of the failures or challenges we have experienced in terms of the pandemic, the climate crisis, and fighting racism and injustice? 

Of course, education and schools have a vital role to play in broadening our social awareness and ensuring that young people are well-prepared for the future, with the courage to fight for social progress. One of the speakers in this conference session was a former teacher, with vast experience in education sector. They called for a greater focus on character-building in school curricula, as a way to bring about more positive outcomes for the wider community. 

This speaker said they believed in an education based on inclusion and equal opportunity for people of all abilities and backgrounds, and called for educators to ‘level-up’ efforts to build resilience and moral courage in their students. If the education system models a morally robust society in this way, then future generations will be better equipped with the necessary tools to influence the fabric of their communities.

This speaker also responded to a question from the online audience, regarding the practical steps we can take to boost moral courage in schools, by describing the central role that schools have played in communities since the outbreak of COVID-19. Many schools’ unlimited response towards young people during the pandemic have reflected the pure meaning of moral courage.

As a key part of the community, massive efforts have been made by schools to tackle challenges relating not only to education and learning but to many other issues in young people’s lives, including poverty. 

Another guest speaker in this session works for a social inclusion organisation that brings together people from different faiths, beliefs and cultures. They opened with a statement that, for them, moral courage is about overcoming our fears but not denying them – like being angry without being blinded by the anger. They stressed that moral courage is personal to each and every one of us, but it is also ‘a societal construct’.

There are great role-models and beautiful stories that can inspire young people to stand up for their beliefs and take action to bring about positive change.

No one can question the importance of learning from the people around us who have spoken out and defended their values and beliefs in the face of adversity, such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. Both women have taught powerful lessons to all of humanity about how much one can achieve with a good dose of moral courage. 

However, this speaker also made the point that there is a great deal of pressure on young people in the modern world. We have seen changes in the structures of our society: in particular, more and more young people are struggling to find stable or meaningful employment in an increasingly competitive and shrinking job market. Now they are further impeded by a global pandemic that is forcing people to seek value and meaning from the virtual world, which can often impact negatively on mental health and wellbeing. 

Amidst such complexity, younger generations can find themselves feeling paralysed and helpless rather than engaged and active contributors to their communities.

This session highlighted the need for older generations to share their wisdom and experience, in order to help young people to navigate and find relief in such a constantly overwhelming world. 

The speaker was asked about their opinion on the links between moral courage and economic inequalities. They said that, although international reports have highlighted increasing levels of poverty and inequality in the UK (for example, see here and here), these are still two of the biggest social challenges we face. People are still unwilling to make the personal sacrifices required to bring about a more equal society and thus, the speaker stressed, moral courage is urgently needed. 

Unearthing our similarities 

Looking ahead to 2040, the UK is expected to be less religious than it is now, yet more religiously diverse, made up of a myriad of faith and beliefs.

Does the decline in religious affiliation mean we will see fewer global movements in the future that are courageous enough to fight for justice? Does our projected diversity of faiths mean that we will fail to unite around common ethics and values and act upon them? 

One of the panellists in this discussion opened their presentation by questioning where moral courage will come from, in 20 years’ time, and who will have the authority to promote shared values and issue calls for a more inclusive society, if there is no longer a religious majority, but instead a diverse population of differing beliefs. 

This speaker used a metaphor of the need for ‘containers’ of moral courage, acting like independent, fluid organisms, capable of dynamically adapting and evolving to serve the values they work to unfold. These need to be present in all arenas of public life, including politics, the media, health, education and the economy. These ‘containers’ should link up like an interconnected network, enabling constant communication and exchange between people from all different backgrounds, thus promoting a culture in which moral courage is firmly embedded. 

One participant asked: ‘Who decides what moral courage looks like?’

Extremists may hold one version of it and Black Lives Matter activists, for example, may hold another. This speaker answered by highlighting the need for spaces that are conducive to open dialogue – the aforementioned sophisticated, skilled and well-shaped ‘containers’ that allow people to emphasise the shared concerns of both viewpoints and to help them see what they have in common rather than what divides them. This would help diverse parties to come together and put forward their perspectives on moral courage in a meaningful way.

The same speaker stressed that it is important to resolve potentially divisive issues by unearthing shared values. They drew attention to two examples of arenas for this kind of wider connection: the global ecological crisis and the increasing need for a closer relationship between science and ecology. 

It is no surprise that the main example given by the speakers of a shared concern that unites us all, was the ecological crisis.

Moral courage is vital in the face of such an urgent crisis, which calls us to re-evaluate our priorities and values and consider what matters to us the most as human beings.   

In a crisis of authority, could our differences be the key to bringing people together?

The final speaker of the session was an interfaith advisor, who started by acknowledging the dilemma of authority we face as the dominance and influence of the Church of England is fading.

If multiple religious and non-religious authorities are now emerging, who then will have the moral authority to address key issues that our society is facing, such as COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement?

This speaker stressed the need for different authorities around the table to work together on addressing differences and making solid decisions around pressing social matters. It was interesting to hear them propose that we should not focus on our ‘shared values’ but, rather, on our ‘shared goods’ in this context. They suggested that we unite around our ‘shared concerns’ through actions that reflect our faith and religious values, even if our values differ from those held by the people we are working alongside.

As the UK becomes more religiously diverse, as we head towards 2040, it makes sense not to turn away from our differences, but instead to establish where our similarities lie, in terms of morality and social goals.

Then our similarities might lead us to stand together to face global issues that affect us all.

One participant made a point about how we might address the concept of ‘doing good’ by engaging future generations in real social action projects rather than counting on interfaith conversations to solve all the issues we face.

The speaker said that we must open up spaces for empathetic discussions between different communities, over shared local, as well as global, concerns, and involve young people in this process. The aim should be to shine a light on the overarching goals for society that people of different faiths and beliefs, or no faith, have in common

Discussion highlights

These discussions brought home to me the power of tolerance for the diversity of belief systems, and the importance of embracing the existence and contribution of others, to understand them rather than view them as threats, for the sake of the greater good. 

For me, moral courage is not an individual innate response or static trait; rather, it’s a habit that can be nurtured over time, through a long process of analysis and debate, cultivated by moral values.

This process allows people to sharpen their skills and develop their moral intelligence, and only then can they bravely face the ethical challenges and carry out real action with impact.

The education system is a crucial pot that stirs diverse groups together, regardless of their backgrounds. Schools and universities have the potential to be inclusive environments that can produce a ‘moral youth’, bold and resilient enough to tackle today’s problems and move against flawed mainstreams. Having said that, modifying school curricula towards developing young people’s personalities alongside other subjects is fundamental for allowing that to happen. 

As humans we will always have unconscious connections that bring us together. ‘Social nets’ are increasingly needed in order to strengthen our connections and help us to rediscover shared values beyond the unity that a shared religion or faith offers. Such nets will help us to adopt group thinking, attenuate a lazy ‘nod and wink’ culture, overcome blind traditionalism, and simultaneously check society’s imperfections and shortcomings.

Amidst the uncertainty of rapid change, there is a need for more inclusive and evolving institutions, which collaborate and champion stories of moral courage to generate more morally sophisticated communities that respond effectively to ethical challenges. 

Personally, I see the deepening authority crisis in the UK, due to so many divisive forces, as ‘authority lost’ – the main cause of our bond’s deep dissolution (for example, from the overarching authority of the Church of England, as well as from central government policymakers).

Policymakers, together with religious and non-religious leaders, are not who they once were, and many people have lost faith in the viability of authority institutions and their capacity to give voice to voices of morality from across society. This is having a huge impact on the human will to act morally and courageously in the face of such shortfalls.

Personal experience has never been central to our autonomy; rather, our will to confront pressing issues in the world around us is shaped by complex interactions with (and connections between) political institutions, faith systems and NGOs promoting a wide range of interests.

This conversation made me question my own moral courage. As a practising Muslim woman, I am privileged to say my values come from my faith, which is the main force that fills my heart with the courage to act for the rights and freedoms of my peers.

As a Syrian citizen, I see religious ties as the common moral foundation that is keeping us going during this devastating 10-year war. However, religious values alone are not always enough to equip us with a good dose of courage. It is true that sourcing and sharing values, and the opportunity to embrace differences of perspective under trusted and diverse authorities, are all elements that are needed for any community to create a beautiful picture for morally and courageous generations to build upon – now, in 2040, and beyond. 

However, one should acknowledge that achieving that degree of willpower is a huge challenge within hostile environments and shredded societies, and this is exactly where moral courage is needed the most.