The former British prime minister Tony Blair. Image Credit: Bloomberg

For years, it was assumed, certainly in the West, that, as society developed, religion would wither away. But it hasn't, and, at the start of a new decade, it is time for policymakers to take religion seriously.

The number of people proclaiming their faith worldwide is growing. This is clearly so in the Islamic world. Whereas Europe's birthrate is stagnant, the Arab population is set to double in the coming decades, and the population will rise in many Asian Muslim-majority countries. Christianity is also growing — in odd ways and in surprising places.

Religion's largest growth is in China. There are more Muslims in China than in Europe, more practising Protestants than in England, and more practising Catholics than in Italy. In addition, according to the latest surveys, around 100 million Chinese identify themselves as Buddhist. And, of course, Confucianism — a philosophy rather than a religion — is deeply revered.

Faith remains for many in the US a vital part of their lives. Even in Europe, the numbers confessing to a belief in God remain high. And, of course there are hundreds of millions of Hindus and still solid numbers of Sikhs and Jews.

Those of faith do great work because of it. Around 40 per cent of health care in Africa is delivered by faith-based organisations. In any developed nation, you will find selfless care being provided to the disabled, the dying, the destitute, and the disadvantaged, by people acting under the impulse of their faith. Common to all great religions is love of neighbours and human equality before God.

Unfortunately, compassion is not the only context in which religion motivates people. It can also promote extremism, even terrorism. This is where faith becomes a badge of identity in opposition to those who do not share it, a kind of spiritual nationalism that regards those who do not agree — even those within a faith who live a different view of it — as unbelievers, infidels, and thus enemies.

Growing up 50 years ago, children might rarely meet someone of a different cultural or faith background. Today, when I stand in my 10-year-old son's playground or look at his friends at his birthday party, I find myriad different languages, faiths, and colours.

Personally, I rejoice in this. But such a world requires that mutual respect replace mutual suspicion. Such a world upends traditions and challenges old thinking, forcing us to choose consciously to embrace it. Or not.

And there is the rub: for some, this force is a threat. It menaces deeply conservative societies. And, for those for whom religion matters, globalisation can sometimes be accompanied by an aggressive secularism or hedonism that makes many uneasy.

So we must make sense of how the world of faith interacts with the compulsive process of globalisation. Yet it is extraordinary how little political time or energy we devote to doing so. Most of the conflicts in today's world have a religious dimension.

Extremism will not abate until it is taken on religiously, as well as by security measures.

Special focus

Of course, throughout time, religion has often been part of a political conflict. But that doesn't mean that religion should be discounted. On the contrary, it requires a special focus.

I started my Faith Foundation precisely to create greater understanding between the faiths. My reasoning is simple. Those advocating extremism in the name of religion are active, well-resourced, and — whatever the reactionary nature of their thinking — brilliant at using modern communication and technology.

So my Foundation has a university programme — now under way in nine countries — that is designed to take religion out of the sole preserve of divinity schools and start analysing its role in the world today.

We have another programme — in 15 countries, with others set to join — that links high school students across the world through interactive technology to discuss their faith and what it means to them.

And we have an action programme through which young people work with those of another faith to raise awareness of the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations-led programme to combat world poverty.

We are just one organisation. There are others starting. But governments should start to take this far more seriously. It has to be taken down into the grassroots of nations, especially into the media of their young people.

Finally, religious leaders must accept a new responsibility: to stand up firmly and resolutely for respecting those of faiths different from their own. Aggressive secularists and extremists feed off each other.

Together, they do constitute a real challenge to people of faith. We must demonstrate the loving nature of true faith; otherwise, religion will be defined by a battle in which extremists seize control of faith communities and secularists claim that such attitudes are intrinsic to religion.

This would be a tragedy. For, above all, it is in this era of globalisation that faith can represent reason and progress. Religion isn't dying; nor should it. The world needs faith.