The place of religion in public life

By Simon Barrow
July 15, 2011

This weekend I am speaking alongside others at a conference on 'The Place of Religion in Public Life', bringing together Humanist, Christian and Muslim contributors to a day of discussion about negotiating different beliefs in society.

The gathering has been organised by the Humanist Philosophers' Group. Other presenters are: Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Associationt; Peter Cave, Chair, Humanist Philosophers; Professor Richard Norman, University of Kent; Nasreen Rehman, British Muslims for Secular Democracy; Dilwar Hussain, Policy Research Centre, Islamic Foundation; and Nick Spencer, Theos.

As a background to what I will say, I have adapted an earlier paper called 'Rethinking religion in an open society' (

Though the role of religion in society has come back onto the agenda with a vengeance in recent years, the political, spiritual and intellectual resources at our disposal for handling the issues involved seem perilously thin on all sides in public life.

This paper aims to reconstruct some key terms in the debate and to offer a positive case for a 'disestablished' form for religion within a plural social and political order. In particular, it suggests that the alternative to hegemonic religion or attempts to exclude religion from public life lies in the rediscovery of an alternative form of politics rooted in practical 'goods' and 'virtues' derived from different communities and traditions, accompanied by the development of a 'civil state' framework.

I'm particularly interested in showing that, while coercive religion is hugely problematic, there is actually a radical, levelling, liberating and subversive dynamic within Christianity which enables us (a plural 'us') to think and act in surprising, creative ways in relation to sharing public space, remaking economics, peacemaking, practicing restorative justice, developing a politics of forgiveness, refounding communities - and much more.

A proper distinction between the institutional interests of particular belief communities and the functioning of an enabling / preserving state is necessary - but not sufficient - for the renewal of civil society as a place of mutually beneficial cooperation, discussion, dialogue, disagreement and negotiation.

As it happens, I also spoke at the launch of the HPG's booklet 'The Case for Secularism', at the Royal Society of Arts, in November 2007, offering a critical Christian appreciation entitled 'Open secularism meets open religion':

It will be interesting to see how the debate, and my own thinking, has moved on in the intervening several years.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. A writer, commentator, theologian and consultant, he was formerly assistant General Secretary and global mission secretary for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), the official ecumenical body. With a background in journalism, politics, theological education and community development, Simon has published widely on issues of beliefs and values, peace and justice, and the reframing church after Christendom. Living in Edinburgh, Scotland, he is a dissenting Anglican, a trustee of the London Mennonite Centre, and a member of the steering group of the Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling.

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