Faith permeates our world, providing a moral and ethical compass for the vast majority of people. Evidence shows that –beyond individual religious practice – faith is increasingly moving into the public sphere and may affect various aspects of economic and social life.  More and more often, people of faith are becoming key partners in organizations aimed at tackling a varied set of global challenges – a sign of the important role of faith leaders and communities in bringing about social change.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith has investigated, in its report Does Faith Matter?, some of the ways in which faith and spirituality have a positive impact on society. Findings cast a light on the place religious belief holds in public life, and renew our collective understanding of religion in today’s society. Moreover, it shows how faith or a belief in a higher power is widespread, whereas this belief is not necessarily paired with a commitment to an organized form of religion.

The survey was taken by members of the Network of the Global Agenda Councils over a 10-month period, and concerned their views on the role of faith. Results of this survey of global leaders and executives highlight areas where faith can make a difference by shaping mindsets, influencing stakeholders and mobilizing communities.

Here are five areas where faith can make a difference:

Human rights
Important principles, such as the “golden rule” of reciprocity (treat others as you would expect to be treated) and respect are shared between all major belief systems and offer the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights. At times both helping and hindering human rights, people of faith have long been active players in this field and have shown how faith can be part of the solution as well as part of the problem.

In 19th-century America, for example, religious leaders were prominent in promoting the rights of black people and women. More recently, a number of leading Muslim intellectuals have asserted that the Islamic tradition supports fundamental human rights.

Peacemaking and conflict prevention
With religion often perceived as being at the core of conflicts around the globe, evidence shows that religion and faith can be invaluable in promoting tolerance, respect, understanding and reconciliation. They represent a powerful positive force in the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.

To achieve sustainable peace and political stability, we need to promote a heightened awareness of religion’s peace-building and reconciliatory role, and build the capacity of governments, faith communities and businesses to work together. In 1992, for example, the Community of Sant’Egidio of Mozambique brought about an African peace agreement.

Values
Research shows that religion and faith can play a vital role in legitimizing societal values. World faiths represent global identities and the shared values that influence the way people live and act. A nuanced understanding of the living interconnection between religious and cultural values can help cast light on the dynamic ways in which religion both shapes and is shaped by society. According to our survey, a majority of the respondents believe faith can improve people’s values.

Anti-corruption
Attention has recently been givento the relationship between religion and corruption, based on the assumption that religious guidance and values can be important allies against corruption.

An individual’s own ethical and moral standards are shaped by his/her own religiosity, and while more research is needed to explore how religion influences people’s attitudes and behaviour towards corruption, there is evidence that faith and religious leaders should be integrated in the anti-corruption fight.

By comparing the Pew Research Center’s 2011 Government Restrictions on Religion Index with the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, one figure stands out: eight of the 10 most corrupt countries have high government restrictions on freedom of religions.

Business ethics
It is a commonly held belief that faith and spirituality introduce ethical values into the workplace and can impact business practices and the wider economy. The ethical ideas and moral systems that are part of many religious traditions can be applied in helpful ways to corporate and economic life, triggering new modes of behaviour, while proposing alternative perspectives to currently prevailing economic models. Islamic finance is a great example of a dynamic religious concept enhancing ethical practices in the finance sector. By focusing on the social responsibilities of financial institutions and individuals, it can be portrayed as a step towards the promotion of sustainability as a key element of economic growth.

Read our report, Does Faith Matter? Leaders on the Role of Faith in Society

Author: Lisa Ventura, Research Analyst, Network of Global Agenda Councils, Global Knowledge Network, World Economic Forum; Silvia Magnoni, Associate Director, Head of Civil Society Communities, Constituents, World Economic Forum

Image: A Hindu devotee stands in the waters of river Ganges in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh January 12, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui