Liberal Education

Faith & Globalization:The Challenge for Higher Education


When I left office, I established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation because I was convinced that conflict between people of different faiths was one of the greatest threats to peace and prosperity in the twenty-first century. I wanted to create an organization that would work with people of all faiths and none to ensure religion played a positive role in the world—one that promoted respect and understanding in a world where religious illiteracy is simply not an option.

I believe that no one today aspiring to lead a country, company, or civic organization should be without a developed understanding of religion and its role in our different societies. That is why one of my first activities for the foundation was to teach a course on faith and globalization at Yale University—to encourage the leaders of tomorrow to understand the role faith can and should play in the modern world. That course has since been expanded into the Faith and Globalization Initiative, a network of more than a dozen universities across the world. The issues addressed by the initiative go to the very heart of what my foundation is about and, in the future, will become ever more central to how it works.

Two ideas form the basis of the Faith Foundation’s work. The first is that the best way to combat religious extremism and the divisiveness that religion can sometimes bring is to create safe, open platforms for people to talk to each other and work together. The second is that, as I have already mentioned, it is not possible to understand the world in the twenty-first century without an understanding of the role of religion. Almost everywhere you look, religion is a powerful, motivating, determining force shaping the world around us.

If we accept that faith matters in a globalized world, it follows that we must account for faith as we work to meet the challenges of globalization. This does not only apply to those challenges where religion is directly involved, such as countering religious extremism and protecting the rights of religious minorities. It may also apply to a whole range of global challenges: poverty, public health, economic development, and climate change. If religion is part of the problem, then logic dictates it must be part of the solution. Even if it is not part of the problem, it can still play an important role in addressing key issues. Faith motivates people to take action, and where we do not understand the role of faith in societies around the globe, it can be an obstacle to progress and development.

Our work in Sierra Leone illustrates this dramatically. By training just a few hundred religious leaders—both Christian and Muslim—who, in turn, train members of their congregations, we have educated more than 130,000 households, or roughly 830,000 individuals, in how to use anti-malarial bed nets. By engaging with the existing social structure of religious organizations, we can be far more effective than if we start from scratch.

Aims of the initiative

The clear importance of religion in today’s globalized world goes against the grain of what had been the prevailing thinking in Western academia, and much of wider European society, for the latter half of the twentieth century. As science inexorably advanced, religion would wither and fade away—or so the story went. This has not happened. The reason, to me at least, is obvious. At its core, religion is not an alternative to science as a method for understanding and explaining the natural world. Instead, faith can provide a structure to a person’s life, values to guide their actions and aspirations, and ideals that endow their existence with meaning and purpose.

Furthermore, the tradition in many democracies has been to view religion as aprivate matter, separate from the public sphere. There was a very good reason for this: to preserve religious freedom, it is important that government does not privilege one set of religious beliefs over another. The easiest way to do this is to exclude religion from the public sphere. You can separate church and state, but you cannot separate faith and citizenship.

Globalization renders the separation of faith and citizenship increasingly untenable, as it brings people from different cultures and traditions closer together as individuals. The neat hierarchy where individuals had relations with their governments and national governments had relations with each other has evaporated. Our individual lives are increasingly affected by events in distant parts of the world. We interact much more intensively with societies that have different perceptions of the relationship between religion and wider public life.

We therefore need a new model to reconcile religion and the public sphere. Religion is not going away, and knowledge and education are the best tools we have to ensure religion plays a positive role in the twenty-first century. Students, the leaders of tomorrow, must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to make effective decisions in a complex, multi-faith world, and they must be comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds.

This is the context in which the Faith and Globalization Initiative has developed. It has grown to a network of more than a dozen universities across the world, including McGill University in Canada, Monterrey Tech in Mexico, King’s College London, National University of Singapore, Peking University, University of Hong Kong, University of Western Australia, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, the American University in Kosovo, and Pristina University, also in Kosovo. We have also begun work with a network of four universities in the Philippines—three of which are in Mindanao, which suffered from religious conflict for decades. Andin autumn 2012, we signed agreements with an Indian university, Banaras Hindu, as well as Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Ukraine.

It’s a diverse group of partners, situated within a wide range of different faith and non-faith traditions. It includes several of the world’s highest-ranked universities, alongside the leading institutions in developing and middle-income countries. Several of the partner institutions are in areas with long and difficult histories of religious conflict. We believe this diversity is one of the most important characteristics of the network, and are confident that all the participating institutions will gain a great deal from it.

I am excited that, through the Faith and Globalization Initiative, students around the world have an opportunity to learn more about religion’s complex relationship with the forces of globalization.

The Structure of the Initiative

By Craig Bardsley


The core element of the Faith and Globalization Initiative is a course, taught at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, that provides students with a background in the world’s religions and explores the myriad ways in whichthese traditions interact with the political, social, and economic processes of globalization. While individual universities design their own syllabi, we provide suggestions based on what has worked elsewhere. The only requirement is that the course be strongly interdisciplinary. As the initiative develops, our partner universities are examining issues of faith and globalization from an increasing variety of perspectives—theology, anthropology, political science, economics, and legal studies, to name a few. The courses resonate strongly with many of the students, who, long after their course is completed, continue to discuss and seek to be involved with the issues it raises.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is a small organization, and in all our programs the ambition is to develop and demonstrate the success of models that can then be taken up by more mainstream actors. So it is that we hope the Faith and Globalization Initiative will provide a model for higher education institutions around the world to reintegrate an understanding of the role of religion in society as a core dimension of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Our Associate Universities program provides universities beyond the core network with pedagogical tools to incorporate the teaching of faith and globalization into their own curricula.

Universities are not only ideal platforms from which to study and debate processes of globalization; they are also key actors driving globalization forward. Academia has long been at the forefront of the globalization process. The Royal Society is extremely proud of appointing a foreign secretary before the British government. During the Cold War, science was one of the few domains where cooperation between the West and the Soviet Union could take place. Today, thousands upon thousands of Chinese students enroll inAmerican and European universities each year. Many Western universities are establishing “branch campuses” across the world.

With the Faith and Globalization Initiative, we are developing a model for working globally in research and higher education that is broader and deeper than collaboration around a single research project or center, but far less complex and resource intensive than setting up branch campuses. Our aim is to create a program that is sizeable enough to make a significant impact in the world, but with the flexibility required by the rapid pace of change that globalization brings.

The Faith and Globalization Initiative does not fit a standard model for charitable organizations that work with the university sector. It is not, to any significant degree, a funding agency, like the Wellcome Trust or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rather, we are a facilitating partner that aims to support our university partners in order to achieve our shared goals in teaching and research as well as in informing policy and engaging the broader public. In developing the Faith and Globalization Initiative, not only are we pursuing a novel and exciting intellectual agenda, but we are also pioneering a new way of working in partnership between the non-profit sector and the research and higher education sector worldwide.

During its first few years, the Faith and Globalization Initiative was focused onexpanding its network of universities in order to achieve a truly global footprint. This has largely been achieved. The foundation is now focused on strengthening the interaction between universities and ensuring that thestudents and faculty involved are participating in a truly global dialogue.

Last summer, we worked with McGill University to host a summer school program on human rights and religious minorities. Nineteen students from six universities participated in the program, with guest lecturers from across the network and beyond. The discussions that resulted from bringing so many cultural and disciplinary perspectives to bear on these issues proved memorable for students and faculty alike. This year, we will be working to embed this interaction further into the core provisioning of the course, by promoting an online community of students across the network and exploring methods for joint work between students at different institutions.

But it is not only the next generation that requires grounding in issues of faith and globalization. The skills to understand the complex role of religion in today’s globalized world are urgently needed by today’s professionals as well.This is why a major effort of the Faith and Globalization Initiative over the next year will be focused on professional training. Working with our partner universities, we intend to develop a comprehensive training program that will lead to professional certification. This program will include short online tutorials that can be completed in a few hours, intensive residential courses, and long-term courses of distance learning that will take a year or two to complete. The initial targets of this work will be diplomatic personnel, but we would hope toexpand it in the future to include executive education and training for staff of nongovernmental organizations.


Teaching is but one aspect of the Faith and Globalization Initiative, and in the months and years ahead we will be substantially strengthening the research dimension of the initiative. The impact of faith upon people’s attitudes and behavior needs to be accounted for more strongly and systematically across thefull range of social sciences and humanities disciplines, and Faith and Globalization will provide a platform for this work.

In all but the broadest sense, the foundation will not set the research agenda, but will instead facilitate the interaction of researchers across the network in order to engage a range of problems related to faith and globalization. It will support universities as they tackle these problems from a variety of different disciplinary approaches. Most importantly, the foundation will work with its university partners to ensure that the results of their research reach the ears of policy makers. Academics are experts in research and teaching, and it is a lot to ask in many cases for them also to be experts at engaging with the complex world of policy. This is exactly where the Faith and Globalization Initiative can provide vital support. As universities around the world are striving to increase their levels of international collaboration and ensure their research activities achieve wider societal impact, these arrangements will be mutually beneficial.

We hope that the research dimension of the Faith and Globalization Initiative will evolve into a core driving force that underpins the work of the foundation as a whole. Our high school program, Face to Faith, provides tools for teaching the understanding of religious diversity and brings students from around the world together, through videoconferences, to share their viewpoints directly. The program operates in hundreds of schools in over nineteen countries, and we have signed agreements with four national governments to mainstream it into their national curricula. There is potentially a wealth of data here that could be used to inform understanding of how educational experiences change attitudesin diverse settings. We intend to work with our universities both to improve the design of the programs and to gain insight into how young people’s attitudes to religion and diversity are formed.

Likewise, as our intervention program, Faiths Act, expands beyond Sierra Leone to tackle a broader range of issues, there are significant opportunities for university research to analyze the impact of these programs. Our universities will be able to collect data and monitor the implementation of our development and conflict resolution projects, thereby improving our understanding of the forces that underlie them. In turn, the outcomes of this research will enable us to improve the design of future projects on the ground.


Globalization continues to transform how universities work: the students and subjects they teach, and the way they conduct and disseminate research. With tight budgets everywhere in the wake of the global economic downturn, universities are under increasing pressure to demonstrate value for money to the wider public from their research and teaching. The Faith and Globalization Initiative is embracing these challenges and, through them, is pursuing new opportunities to contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous global future.

Tony Blair prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007, is patron and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and Craig Bardsleis manager of the foundation’s Faith and Globalization Initiative.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the authors' names on the subject line.

Previous Issues