Religion in Public Life?

Questions for debate

Some of the speakers in previous debates – like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali – believe that religion has been pushed out of public life, marginalised, even persecuted. Others, like Richard Dawkins, think it’s not been pushed out far enough and still has undue influence in government, schools and so on. How well does the UK ‘do’ religion in public life, and what improvements are needed?

Conclusions from the debate

Religion has always made an important contribution to public life, and continues to do so. Religious convictions can and should be brought into public debate and decision-making in a democracy. Few religious people in the UK want to impose their truth on others; most are happy to abide by the democratic process. The state and religious communities should work in partnership – to do so makes both more responsible.

Tony Blair

“I think what we need is a combination of religion-friendly democracy and democracy-friendly religion… religion should have its proper place but in the end the processes of democracy must be supreme in the ultimate decision making.”

Tony Blair

Points of Debate and Disagreement

Being religious involves believing that you have unique access to the truth and that ‘error has no rights.’ FaithDebate01_arrow Most religious people do not believe that they have a unique hold on truth, and think that ‘there are many ways to God.’
Religion is primarily a matter of beliefs which are held to be true by their followers (and false by their critics). FaithDebate01_arrow Religion has as much, if not more, to do with values, with how one behaves, with relationships with God and other people.
Britain’s Christian heritage is under threat as never before, from human rights legislation above all. FaithDebate01_arrow Christianity still has access to the public sphere (e.g. schools, and in handling tragedy and celebration), and human rights have religious roots.
Organised religion in the UK is too wary of the media and does not communicate well in public life. FaithDebate01_arrow Public religion isn’t so much about column inches or a national voice, but action at the local level.

Practical Suggestions

State and religious communities should work in a close relationship, so that the former cannot ignore the latter and the latter cannot just opt out of public life and responsibility.

At a time when religious extremists often shout loudest and gain a disproportionate hearing, it is important to support democracy-friendly religion around the globe.

Rather than condemning religious people for irrational and false beliefs, those who attack religion should pay more attention to the values, ways of life, and relationships/communities which are what count for many religious people.

Tony Blair, Charles Moore, Rowan Williams

“I see the extent to which people of faith feel victimised or marginalised, I’m not sure they always see it clearly… a few extremely hard cases have created a slightly highly-coloured view of where we are.”

Rowan Williams

“The more organised the religion is the less keen it seems to be on clear communication.”

Charles Moore

“I think the position of religion in public life is not just a matter of column inches or whatever, I think it’s very much about how it works on the ground in localities.”

Rowan Williams

How the Media Reported the Debate

“For what it lacked in controversy, a head-to-head between Tony Blair and Rowan Williams last night made up for in confession.”

Ruth Gledhill, The Times 25 July 2012

“Moore deplored the way the press had condemned the very notion that Blair might have prayed with George Bush. ‘Did you pray with him, by the way?’ he demanded. Blair was unruffled. ‘It wouldn’t have been wrong,’ he said, ‘but it didn’t happen. And I’m sure that, as a journalist, you understand the distinction.’ ‘Touche!’ Moore cried.”

London Evening Standard 25 July 2012

“On the question of women bishops, Dr Williams said that he had recently learned ‘just how difficult it is for women to hear an all-male body pronouncing on their future.'”

Madeleine Davies, Church Times 26 July 2012

Archbishop Rowan Williams, Rt Hon Tony Blair and Charles Moore in conversation, Westminster Central Halls

On 24 July former Prime Minister the Rt Hon Tony Blair, writer and former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams were in conversation on the theme of Religion in Public Life, from the perspectives of the churches, the state and the media, with an audience of over 400 people who had participated in previous Faith Debates. Charles Clarke chaired the event and Professor Linda Woodhead introduced the speakers and the Religion and Society Programme, which has revealed major changes in the role of religion in society over the last fifty years.

Watch highlights from the event below and the full event here. Access the press release and media coverage here & listen to podcasts of the event below.


  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

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  • Charles Moore

    Charles Moore was born in 1956. He has been editor of The Spectator (1984-90), the Sunday Telegraph...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Rowan Williams

    Dr Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002. He is acknowledged internationally as an...

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  • Tony Blair

    Tony Blair served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from May 1997 to June...

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  • Public Life Introduction

  • Public Life Conversation

  • Public Life Questions and Responses


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