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.

Though the role of religion in society has come back onto the agenda with a vengeance (sometimes literally) over the past seven years or more [1], the political, spiritual and intellectual resources at our disposal for handling the issues involved seem perilously thin on all sides in public life. [2] This paper [3] 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. [4]

Blocs and blockages

Media-driven discussions about faith in relation to ideology, the state, politics, education, welfare and social provision soon descend into an unproductive slagging match dominated by two fairly crude opinion juggernauts. On one ‘side’ are the vested interests of organised religion, including both the Established Church and those who claim the official recognition of religion through the Church of England as a bulwark against what they present as a nightmare vision of rootless and amoral secularism. That includes many leading figures in the Catholic, conservative Protestant, Muslim and inter-faith worlds. They believe, in the words of the Anglican Bishop of Rochester (whose world-view is formed out of the experience of two countries, two continents, two religions and two denominations), that “Judaeo-Christian values” should form the explicit, recognised basis of civic and governing authority in modern Britain, in order to ground democracy and pluralism in a larger set of convictions derived from a particular interpretation of the history of these islands. [5] They want to see the defence and extension of faith influence in schools and other areas of public life, and sometimes they speak of a growing ‘religionophobia’ or ‘Christianophobia’ in society. The latter term has been used both by hard line evangelicals and Catholic bishops in recent months. [6]

On the other ‘side’, according to the dominant way the religion and politics issue is constructed, you have a growing band of secularists, humanists and atheists, plus a large number of people who remain indifferent to questions of religion and traditional faith, but who are fed up with what they see as the increasing encroachment of religion in the public domain. They see faith as based on dangerously non-rational sources of constructing morals and social vision, and often argue that it is inherently inclined towards dogmatism rather than accommodation. [7] They point out that while religious conviction has declined in modern Britain, according to most reliable measures and indicators, and while religious institutions have often struggled to maintain themselves, paradoxically government seems more and more keen to give the religious power and influence over the lives of others – in education, in public services and possibly now (it is being discussed in Scotland, specifically) over prisons. [8]

At the hard edge of these competing blocks of opinion lie varieties of what I would call ‘the victim narrative’ – the idea that there is a deliberate erosion at work, whereby “we” (evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, secularists, or whoever) are being systematically excluded, disadvantaged and – effectively – discriminated against; perhaps even 'persecuted'. If you visit the websites of the more outspoken organisations from these communities, you will see that they each offer a picture of themselves as threatened at the expense of each other. Our society, we are told, is becoming ‘dangerously secular’ or ‘dangerously dominated by religion’.

While these self- and other-reinforcing stereotypical summaries of life in modern Britain can be both unhelpful and misleading, by virtue of presenting selective accounts of a reality that is far more complex and less certain, this does not mean that there is no truth in them. The clash of outlooks, assumptions and values involved in various public struggles over whether organised religion should or should not have a role in public life are real enough, for example.

Moreover, while ‘victimology’ is a dangerous way of trying to deal with the pain of conflicting interests and understandings, it would be wrong to deny that some communities with a strong belief identity component face real threat. The growth of virulent anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment in some quarters is a daily reality that needs to be confronted by all of us, whatever our world view. It also needs to be seen in conjunction with the patterns of social exclusion and inequality for which it is often a symptom or analogue. [9]

Challenging the ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’ agenda

In terms of the dominant construction of these questions, there are three popular conceptions that need contesting. First, the idea that something that can be generalised as ‘religion’ is inherently ill-disposed towards ‘secularity’ (understood as non-prejudicial pluralism) in public life. Second, the notion that faith must either be dominant or privatized within the public realm (as if there were no other options). Third, the view that ‘faith’ is essentially antagonistic toward, and incompatible with, reason. It is these three assumptions – constantly reiterated and rarely examined – that make much discourse about religion and politics, religion and the state, religion and intellectual life hopeless in the true sense of that term – without meaningful prospect of bearing fruit, let alone generating resolution. [10] In offering a different view, let me suggest specific ways in which these assumptions need to be deconstructed and reconstructed.

For a start, there is no such thing as ‘religion’. Instead, there are different religions (plural), and these religions contain multiple forms and ideas, with both deep conflict and surprising harmony observable within as well as between them, and between the different religious traditions and those of humanism, secularism and post-Enlightenment discourse. This is not an abstract intellectual point. What I am saying is that people of faith, no faith and “good faith” (as we might describe those with beliefs not derived from religion) do not live either in books or in fortresses, they live down your streets, and they are not reducible to some meta-category called ‘religion’ which will enable you to make sense of them; or, if you are a policy adviser, to decide quickly what the convenient answer to “take me to your leader” is or should be. As soon as someone starts talking about ‘religionists’ and ‘secularists’ as two definable species, [11] or stating categorically what function ‘religion’ should or should not have in personal and communal identity, they have begun to lose the plot. Often, they have done so because of the need to feed a conscious ideology that can make great use of convenient pigeonholes but finds itself undermined by the sheer awkwardness of actual reality.

This realisation has many implications, but for the purposes of public policy there is one that stands out. On the positive side, the actual diversity of religious and non-religious expressions means that it is impossible and undesirable to claim that any one tradition (Christianity, Islam, humanism, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and so on) has a single irreducible character. There is good and bad, rational and non-rational, dogmatic and non-dogmatic in each. In order to distinguish where and how this is so you need to learn and cross-fertilise some history, sociology, philosophy, theology and more. So the good news is that we do not have to assume that ‘all Christians’ (or ‘all’ of any belief group, including atheists) are “essentially” this, that or the other. Or that what it means for one person or group to be Muslim is what it means for another, and so on. The difficult news is that there is no chart or indisputable measure for judging these things. It is a matter of competing analysis and opinion based on stipulative and descriptive reason. [12]

What we can be certain about is the existence of certain identifiable religious institutions – the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Methodist Conference, the Hindu Forum, the General Synod of the Church of England, and so on. But even there, the matter is incredibly difficult, because how strong, representative, comparable, important, central, changeable or negotiable any of these are taken to be will depend to an extent on who you ask and whose view you take as normative. Ecumenical and inter-faith bodies realise this more than most - which is why there may be a vested interest in bypassing the complexity they embody and reflect if you are trying to take decisions in a single church or a government department, say. [13]

The changing demography of belief and identity

Nonetheless there are certain recognisable trends regarding organised religion in Britain today which carry a weight that cannot be ignored simply because they are unhelpful to particular interests, and it is these I want to focus on in painting an alternative picture of the religious situation we are in – one that differs both from the dominant secularist narrative (at least as painted by, say, some within the National Secular Society) and from the dominant religious narrative (as constructed by, say, leading figures in the Established Church).

The alternative picture I am about to offer comes from a dissenting tradition within Christianity [14] – one that has reason to be suspicious of overbearing religious institutions, of overbearing states, and of the dominance of corporate life by money and power. This is because it is constituted by those who have often been a minority, who have been seen as a threat to the status quo, or who have been marginalised and even repressed. It would include Anabaptists, the historic peace churches (like the Quakers and Mennonites), various Free churches, and Catholic base-level communities, for example. Non-conformism can be found as an early, persistent powerful (though often small) alternative voice within virtually all Christian confessions and expressions.

When it can avoid turning itself into yet another competing “victim narrative” it is has much to offer, because what being on the margins enables you to recognise, in the way that those who find themselves at the centre often cannot, is that in a globalising world marked by rapid people movements, cultural and social diversity, political conflict, spiritual diversity, intellectual restlessness and economic inequality, historic religious institutions are being collapsed or radically re-formed. [15] In the West they are mostly in significant decline, in ways that those who belong to them can still barely comprehend. In other parts of the world they are seeking to reassert themselves through a kind of “revanchism” – a revival that seeks to reclaim lost power and identity. Right-wing Christian fundamentalism and political Islamism are two leading examples. They model themselves as ‘traditional’, but if you look in more detail you discover that they are actually quite modern, aggressive responses to a sense of loss in contemporary society. They have their roots in the conditions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, rather than the earlier forms that they like to claim as their legitimation. [16]

In Britain the influence and presence of such ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ [17] movements, while still relatively small numerically, is being felt as never before in public life. It is happening at a time when we have largely (though not evenly) ceased to be a ‘Christian nation’ based on the unspoken public hegemony of an increasingly attenuated civic religion, characterised beautifully in the 1960s by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: the religion of the English, he suggested, is that there is no god, and it is wise to pray to him from time-to-time. [18] That observation comes from a lost world – one that was, of course, never as simple as that anyway. The lost world is what I would call “Christendom”, the long era in which the church and its ideology was powerful and influential in shaping the whole of society, on premises which stretch right back (in different and uneven ways) to the incorporation of Christianity as a religion of empire under Constantine in the Edict of Milan (313 CE). [19]

These days, what we have instead is an Established Church that attracts just under a million people Sunday-by-Sunday, a growth in particular concentrations of the Black-led churches (in London, for example), more and greater varieties of Islam, multiple small religious expressions in urban areas, a vocal but tiny atheist elite, spirituality disconnected from organised religion, politics divorced from inherited ideologies, morality more negotiated than received through authority, and a vast and growing swathe of people – the majority – for whom religion is not a regular influence in their lives, and for whom the topic of today’s discussions is one they have probably not got quite so far as dismissing.

Argue with the details of that if you will, but in the light of the considerable amount of evidence we now have, I would suggest that it is a reasonably accurate characterisation of a ‘mixed belief’ society; one which is unlikely ever to be captured again by a single vision of what it is couched in received spiritual terms. That is part of what we might call ‘the post-modern condition’.

Now this, of course, is profoundly problematic in many ways. If you cannot appeal to Christianity (or that confusing fictive construction “the Judaeo-Christian tradition”), [20] to socialism with a big ‘S’, to unfettered free markets, to morality with a big ‘M’ or indeed to humanism with a big ‘H’ as the undisputed ground of the social and political order, how do you do society and politics? You can assert the universality of liberalism, democracy, the market and human rights if you will, but these turn out to be contested phenomena rather than readily imposable norms. The discovery that this is so is part of the pain of the post-Cold War era. So much though we may disagree with Dr Nazir-Ali, he is not wrong to avert to such challenges. They also lie behind what look like the rather bland (when not rather authoritarian) attempts of New Labour to make us feel “British” again. They are certainly implicated in the unpleasant “unifying ideologies” of racism and nationalism. And they are what lead aggressive religious conservatives and radical secularists to want to claim that only their worldview is strong enough to sustain us.

Moving beyond the Christendom and anti-religion mentalities

In attenuated form, the defence of an Established Church is also an attempt to provide a “civilised form of sacralized liberal coherence” (as one defender of Establishment recently put it to me) in the face of the disintegration of received religious, political, and national narratives – the big stories that we tell, shape and contribute to in order to go on making sense of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Put that way, I hope you can see that it has some appeal. But it won’t do, for a variety of reasons.

One major one is that it suppresses the concrete problems and limits of liberalism, democracy, guided free markets and human rights [21] by trying to fit them within a predominant faith no longer shared or practiced by the majority of people. It invites people to buy into a kind of “as if” constitutional situation. “You may not believe this, but it keeps us together and in good order, so please go along with it”. Increasingly, people are unable and unwilling to do so, however. What’s more, the joins are showing badly. Whether it’s arguments about faith schools, gay adoptions, blasphemy laws or the extent of equalities legislation, certain aspects of the emerging public culture of post-Christendom Britain stick in the craw of those with an establishment view of religion, internally moralistic and externally functionalist.

This leads others to say, “away with all this nonsense. De-link church and state, disestablish religion, take away inherited religious privileges, separate organised faith from politics, education and public provision – and all will be well”. Or at least, a whole lot better. To a significant extent I share the view that such a formal de-linking at the level of institutions is needed. But not the liberal, humanistic optimism it is often based on. Autonomous individualism, the rejection of an unconditioned and unconditionable ground for good [22], and Enlightenment rationality have their heavy prices as well as their undoubted gains. The main price is interminable disagreement and the need for mediating institutions and cultures of public governance and provision that enable people to differ and disagree without war and domination. The outcome, however, is – if we are not careful – a “society of strangers” in which the contractual and the saleable replaces the interpersonal and traditional loyalties.

It is this erosion that lies behind the rise of various fundamentalisms (what I would prefer to call aggressive conservatisms) among faith communities. The temptation to resolve the wider problems of society into your own needs and to lionise a golden age within one ideology provides security and coherence in an era of transition in which what is passing away and what is emerging is not clear. To dismiss this as straightforward irrationality, as less-thinking secularists do, is to miss the core of the challenge and to risk taking on the very “we are right, you are wrong” mindset you believe you are challenging.

Developing an alternative politics of ‘goods’ and ‘virtues’

What we need instead of political functionalism (of the kind that lies behind neoliberal economics), reductionist ‘realism’ (neoconservative politics) and angry rejectionism (absolutist thinking, both ‘secular’, and ‘religious’) is not vague ‘values’ or rhetorical aspirations – Barack Obama’s well-meaning but essentially vacuous ‘we can do it’ version of hope. Rather we need concrete ways of nurturing, developing and sharing the “goods” that specific communities and groups of people (humanists, Christians, Muslims, Jews and others) have to contribute – within an arena of public policy and protection which gives none a prior privilege and requires all to live out their differences, and what they have to offer, in terms of witness rather than control.

That is, we need different groups within society to be willing to model particular ways of life, rather than seek to impose them. In proposing a renewal of religious-political discourse along these lines, Ekklesia is especially concerned to develop the public significance of concrete practices like reconciliation, non-violence, economic sharing, hospitality (welcome and inclusion), restorative justice, social equality, forgiveness, neighbourly freedom, the community of women and men, environmental sustainability, and global solidarity with all those pushed to the margins.

From our perspective, the resources needed to signal hope in a fearful world demand far more than has traditionally been imagined by self-styled ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ in the various religious and humanist/secularist traditions.

Life in all its fullness (such as the Gospel proposes) cannot be achieved by the social and natural sciences, technological advance, economic development, autonomous reason and political operation alone - it requires a major change of heart and mind in the basic way we relate to each other, the world and God.

From our perspective, engagement in public life is therefore also an invitation to think in a theologically transformative way – that is, to recover the hidden wisdom of the Gospel for a post-Christendom world, so that we can begin to see 'the other' as a gift rather than a threat.

Call the mediating framework required for this and other civic political performances “secularism” if you will, but I fear that it may be too thin and ambiguous a term. I would prefer “committed plurality”. [23] The idea is not to impose a religious or a non-religious a priori, on the state or its functions, but to recognise that the role of governance within a broadly democratic order is to keep the public square accessible for as many as possible.

An Established Church, unelected religious leaders in an unelected second chamber, blasphemy laws, and large swathes of education and welfare controlled by particular faith, ideology and business interests (note that I am bracketing these three together) militates against this openness. So does the idea that religious or other groups can take over public services and then decide whom they will or will not serve. That offends both my sense of civic virtue, and my biblical Christian conviction that all are invited to the Feast of life, not just those favoured by a ruling elite.

Yet in spite of the changing demography of belief in modern Britain that seems to be where we are heading through what Rowan Williams and others have called “the market state” – a place where the solution to everything is privatization and contracting out. [24] The problem is much bigger than religion, but because religious civic networks are still a lot larger than the receding fabric of religious conviction and institutional life suggests, they become one place where government seeks to rest its laurels when revenue and public provision are problematic. [25]

The alternative is for those of us who belong to religious communities (that is, communities of belief and conviction) not to allow ourselves to be a sticking plaster for these larger problems, and to resist the temptation to acquire power for ourselves by a “stakeholder” re-vamping of Christendom. [26] This implies more than a simple “separation” of church and state. The United States ought to warn us that drawing lines is insufficient for defining a relationship between religion and governance – where ‘the separation of powers’ (highly desirable as it is in many respects) has not proved sufficient to eliminate conflict about or involving belief. What is needed is transformations of civic and religious consciousness too, and that lies beyond the capacity of either the state or the market. It resides instead in the cultivation of public virtues through alternative political practices - things like alternative forms of lending and borrowing (as distinct from usury). Such alternatives exist at the heart, for instance, of my own Christian tradition, but in ways that have been obliterated or obscured by centuries of collusion between church and governing authority. They are found in Jewish and Muslim traditions, too, as well as in non-religious forms.

Religion and politics in post-Christendom

As a Christian I believe in political subversion. I want to challenge the way that society treats and marginalises particular groups of people, grounds itself in violence (bombing people to do the good) and despoils the planet. I want and need to challenge those tendencies out of the depths of my own tradition of understanding and practice, but also with and alongside others. The levelling, dissenting account of Christianity does not require privilege and dominance, simply freedom to be what it is and to develop its forms of life, sometimes with others and sometimes in more counter-cultural ways. I would suggest that this might apply to other faith communities, and indeed to many secular and humanist groups too, but I don’t intend to speak for them.

What I am suggesting, however, is that disestablished religion (as distinct from the manipulative, domineering kind) has much to offer a plural society were no one faith, ideology or political conviction (including, I would point out, one which seeks to suppress public religion) can rule unquestioned without their being hell to pay for all of us. We have to redeem and remake religion and politics together. We can and should do this on the basis of a separation of powers between religious authority and civic authority. But we cannot do it by arbitrarily expecting religious conviction to have nothing to do or say in the public, political realm – as if its beliefs, rituals and organisations do not exist except in the minds of individuals.

That, I think, is our central confusion. We have got ourselves into a situation whereby we (and by “we”, I mean the Established Church, ‘religious people’, secularists, public policy makers, all of us) think that only by giving faith groups an owning or controlling stake in something can they have any meaningful way of participating. This is most definitely not so. It is within civil society, not by seeking privilege in the corridors of power, where communities of conviction have a key role to play – and where their own differences (such as the unseemly row over sexuality) need to be resolved. Not by superimposing them on the public sphere where services, for instance, need to be open to all, including those we disagree with or disapprove of.

My larger argument would be that what Britain needs to move towards is a civic state rather than a market one or a corporatist one. But that will have to wait for another day. I hope that what I have said in this essay at least suggests how the obstacles to progress in negotiating religious conviction and public life may be tacked by reframing the location, style and content of ‘religious participation’, and by identifying why the reality of an emerging post-Christendom era involves the need to move beyond “religion versus secularity” in whatever we may wish to develop. [27]


Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog may be found at .



[1] While it may a piece of transatlantic hubris to claim that ‘everything changed with 9/11’, the attack on the World Trade Centre certainly catapulted religiously-driven extremism and violence into the media spotlight and challenged the view that religious conviction is simply a harmless private distraction.

[2] The level of debate and comment on broadsheet newspaper sites may not be representative of the widest cross-section of opinion, but it is indicative of the relative preponderance of heat to light in the discussion about religion and belief. The distance between academic reflection and media or government policy discussion is also wide, because serious research and intellectual writing on or from religious traditions is rarely reviewed or considered.

[3] This paper is an expanded version of one entitled ‘The case for disestablished religion in a plural society’ at the 9 January 2008 Religion & Society Seminar at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations Public Policy Unit – with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The original paper is available on the website of the Religion & Secularism Network at Cambridge University ( The version here was last modified on 29 January 2008.

[4] This essay draws on perspectives developed in other reports, papers and books published by Ekklesia, notably Jonathan Bartley’s Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster Press, 2005) and Simon Barrow’s ‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’ (2006). See also ‘God and the politicians: where next?’ (2005), ‘Subverting the Manifestos: A Christian Agenda for Change’, and ‘Keeping the wrong kind of religion out of politics’ (2003).

[5] See ‘Bishop causes uproar with attack on Islamism and 'Christian nation' fears’ (Ekklesia, 6 January 2008). For an alternative view on establishment, see Kenneth Leech (ed), Setting the Church of England Free: The Case for Disestablishment (Jubilee Group, 2002). See also: Is 'Christian nation' rhetoric aiding the far right? (Ekklesia, 27 April 2007).

[6] The term “Christianophobia” is believed to have originated with American legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler. It features prominently in the writings of American conservative writer, activist, and Catholic theologian George Weigel – notably in Is Europe Dying? Notes on a Crisis of Civilizational Morale (Watch on the West, a newsletter of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, USA, Volume 6, Number 2, June 2005) and The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (Modern Commentary, 2004). What they perceive as hostility towards Christianity per se, Ekklesia would argue is a combination of the demise of Christendom assumptions in the public square, and opposition to forms of Christianity that continue aggressively to seek hegemony beyond their own jurisdiction, as well as general secular cultural suspicion of the grounds of faith as such. Indeed “Christianophobia” may be a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

[7] Such views, unaccompanied by any balanced assessment, are regularly propagated on the website of the National Secular Society, for example.

[8] Ekklesia has argued that this is indeed a problem, not because of some genetic-like fault within ‘religion’, but because of a coincidence of the vested interests of government and Established Church. See Jonathan Bartley, ‘Why does government want to court the churches?’ (13 November 2007).

[9] The European Union began to publicly acknowledge the growth of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim feeling in the aftermath of events in the Middle East. See ‘EU vows to fight religious hatred’, BBC, Thursday, 25 April, 2002.

[10] The moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre suggests that the ‘interminability of modern political and moral discourse’ derives from the failure of universalistic post-Enlightenment thinking to properly recognise the implications of rationality being derive from tradition as well as encyclopaedic and constructionist sources of knowledge. See After Virtue (Duckworth, 1981) and his succeeding work. Regarding the deconstruction of the simplistic category of ‘religion’ see particularly the work of theologian and philosopher Nicholas Lash, especially The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[11] It would similarly be helpful to talk of ‘secularisms’ (plural) rather than secularism in the singular. There are some visions of the secular which are anti-religious, some premised on explicitly theological premises, and many other varieties beside. There are religious secularists as well as secularists antipathetic toward ‘religion’. The British Humanist Association’s philosophers groups has recently produced a helpful pamphlet setting out an inclusive vision from a non-religious perspective: The Case for Secularism: A Neutral State in an Open Society.

[12] That is, narrative and rational accounts from within and without. See the work of Mary Douglas and other anthropological and typological analysts of ‘religion’ and ‘belief’.

[13] In November 2006 the New Generation Network, comprising primarily of younger, progressive Asian thinkers and commentators raised serious questions about the way in which government panders to ‘religious and community leaders’, without real evidence that those they speak to – often older, and part of established institutions facing decline or challenge – really represent the multivalent reality they claim to speak for, especially when ‘identity’ is complex rather than monolithic.

[14] I mention this, because many analyses these days fail to factor their location, and because there is a tendency to view the religious situation from dominant or defensive positions. In Britain the Anabaptist Network, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Christian peace and justice organisations would be among those with affinities in the dissenting traditions of Christianity. But there are also many associated with the Anglican and Catholic churches and ecumenical activity, say, who share aspects of those values. They often cross traditional religious typologies of ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’, and embody specific commitments which provide alternative perspectives and entry points in relation to local and global concerns, both within and without the churches.

[15] The analyses are many and varied: See among others, P. R. Adhakrishnan ‘Religion under Globalisation’, Economic & Political Weekly, 27 March 2004; ‘Religious Organisations in a Global World. A Comparative Perspective’, by Margit Warburg (University of Copenhagen, 2001); and the US Pew Foundation’s ‘Religion in a Globalizing World’ event, December 2006.

[16] See Ekklesia’s research report ‘Facing up to fundamentalism’, 1 February 2007 and ‘How Islam can challenge those who abuse it from within’, Simon Barrow, Ekklesia, 14 July 2007. Also the important counter-narratives of Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst: The roots of Islamic terrorism, International Herald Tribune, 28 July 2005; The twisted religion of Blair and Bush, IHT, 10 March 2006; Why the West gets religion wrong, IHT, 18 July 2005; and passim.

[17] The term ‘radical’ is used in a variety of ways. Here it is associated with a tradition-specific and rejectionist extremism. But it also has positive resonances. See Ekklesia’s FAQ on the subject:

[18] Macintyre’s remark came in an unfavourable review of Bishop John Robinson’s iconoclastic book Honest to God (1963) which was a watershed for two reasons. First, it was the last theological book to sell more than a million copies. Second, it popularised in modern, liberal form a tradition of Christendom critique that in fact goes back to the Radical Reformation and Søren Kierkegaard.

[19] On the contemporary critique of Christendom and after, see and the writings of Stuart Murray, summarised here: (Adobe Acrobat PDF document). It is worth noting that recent scepticism has come from broadly evangelical and ‘orthodox’ Christian sources, more than liberal ones.

[20] The term ‘Judaeo-Christian is still widely used, even though it has been thoroughly critiqued and challenged within the intellectual traditions of both religions, where scholars point out that it homogenizes moral and theological reasonings with very different histories and trajectories, and suppresses the actual conflicts within and between both Judaism and Christianity. What s defended and asserted under this banner often has strong affinities with what I am here calling a ‘Christendom’ mentality, where a broader conservatism is inscribed in or as a religious philosophy. It is necessary to draw a distinction between this and the writings of those, like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr Rowan Williams, whose advocacy of ‘traditional commitments’ has multiple sources, many of them more subversive than they first appear. See for example Kenneth Leech and Rowan Williams (eds.), Essays Catholic and Radical (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976).

[21] The universal definition and application of liberalism, free markets, democracy and human rights is often taken as ‘read’ by modern Western discourse. In fact it is deeply contested, in positive and negative ways. Strong theological critiques of the conceptual and procedural political/ideological adequacy of these assumptions have come in recent years from Stanley Hauerwas (a reconstructed Anabaptist-like thinker) in the USA and the Radical Orthodoxy school, associated with John Milbank, and now with the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham) in the UK. I share many aspects of these critiques, while worrying about a lurking triumphalism within them too. Nevertheless, Ekklesia’s work is premised on the contention that theological critiques arising fro concrete alternative practices are essential to analysing and moving beyond the failings of secular theory as well as the distortions of Christendom and hegemonic religious projects.

[22] The practical and theoretical positing of a source of unconditioned and unconditionable good lies at the very heart of belief in God within the Christian tradition (rather than a naively realist metaphysics of ‘supernature’, as is commonly supposed). I have unpacked the meaning and implications of this in the research paper ‘What difference does God make today?’ (Ekklesia, 2007).

[23] The aim of the development of public institutions and public policy should not be ‘neutrality’ (which is not possible) but openness – by which I mean the creation of as much civic space as possible and the maintenance of the mechanisms of government and the provision of services as public – available to all, beyond the interests and commitments of particular communities and lobbies.

[24] What constitutes ‘the state’ these days is a moot and contested point, though much public discourse presupposes a use of the term little modified from the mid-twentieth century. Governance has been simultaneously shrinking and expanding in different ways over the past twenty years. ‘Contracting out’, public-private finance and the purchaser-provider split are among the ways in which this has been happening, such that the ‘voluntary sector’ is increasingly called the Third Sector, perhaps because it is becoming as much compulsory as voluntary. See Rowan Williams’ 2002 Dimbleby Lecture on the implications of the consumer-led “market state”.

[25] See Jonathan Bartley, Jonathan Bartley, ‘Why does government want to court the churches?’ (13 November 2007) and the chapter of the new deal between government and an emerging ‘multi-faith establishment’ in his book Faith and Politics After Christendom, op. cit.

[26] I made this point explicitly seven years ago, in my essay as part of Michael Simmons (ed.), Street Credo: Churches and Communities (Lemos and Crane, 2001).

[27] See ‘Difference based on friendship’, Guardian Comment-is-Free, 20 November 2006.