Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, has called for improved dialogue between believers and non-believers to establish the shared values in society.
He made the call in a lecture at Westminster Cathedral last night, part of a series of talks by senior public figures (including former prime minister Tony Blair) assessing the state of belief in modern Britain and beyond.
The dialogue needs to be based on mutual esteem, he suggested, and grounded in humility and respect for the other, rather than a rejection of difference.
The Cardinal also said that common in Britain cannot be a God-free zone, with religion banished to the private sphere, both because of the contribution to the common good made by religious persons, but also because of the search for truth and meaning which takes both individual and collective forms.
The Cardinal questioned the basis on which some prominent atheists attacked faith. In dismissing faith as being wholly without reason they appear unable to cope with the notion of an intelligent, reflective Christian faith, he said.
The Cardinal argued that the the Catholic Christian tradition is characterised by a close relationship between reasoned understanding and religious faith - in its Thomistic roots, and elsewhere.
He declared: "The interesting question about atheism is what is the theism that is being denied? Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins does not believe in? I usually find that the God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don't believe in either."
Doubt lies at the heart of what it is to be human and is shared by believers and non-believers alike, said Murphy O'Connor. He said that the certainty of those attacking faith should not be met with a closed attitude by believers. Both need to recognise each other better, more accurately, more appreciatively and with deep esteem.
He referred to words Pope Benedict wrote, when Fr Joseph Ratzinger, in 1968, to the effect that the doubt that exists in the believer could become the basis for an open dialogue with those who do not believe.
"Both the believer and the non-believer share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication."
The Cardinal was speaking, in a wide-ranging and personal lecture, at a packed Westminster Cathedral in the final week of his Faith and Life in Britain lecture series.
"I wanted this Cathedral to be a place for people to listen to matters pertaining to religion in the secular society in which we live here in Britain," he exaplained.
He went on: "I wanted religion to be, and to be seen to be, open to the questions of those who do not believe detect among many people a sense of loss, of not being in touch with living sources that can nourish them. They want to live by shared values that can sustain our society but do not know where to find them. They want to find a context that can give their lives a deep meaning, but, again, are unable to find it. There are unspoken aspirations in people's lives that modern culture does not permit them to express."
Expanding on the idea of 'spiritual homelessness' amid material and technological wealth, the Cardinal said religion had a particular and important role to play in society.
He said: "My hope and prayer is that we will all continue to foster the witness of faith in Britain today. In this way we help to create a culture in which God is honoured and worshipped and all women and men cherished, valued and supported from the beginning of their lives to their end".
The Cardinal concluded his lecture with a reminder not to lose hope. The central message of the Gospels is God's unlimited love for us all, learned through families, friends and the communion of all believers, he said.
The lecture will be available as a video download at www.rcdow.org.uk/lectures
The book Faith and Life in Britain - The Cardinal's Lectures, is published by Matthew James Publishing, 2008.
With acknowledgements to Independent Catholic News - http://www.indcatholicnews.com/