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Columnists

Private spheres, public squares

Paul Vallely

Delete the Pope. Insert yourself. Delete Catholic. Insert Christian. Then consider the following. Benedict XVI on his trip to the United States pronounced: 'Cultivating a Catholic identity … is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting'.

Self-evident? You might think so, but not according to the received wisdom in contemporary secularism. In much of our society something else is normative in thinking about religion. It began with the Reformation and proceeded through the Enlighten-ment and now it is largely taken for granted. It is the idea that religion is properly the concern of the inner individual; the thinking and acting must be confined to a private space. In a modern pluralist society faith has no role in the public square, where discourse should be conducted in secular terms and something as exclusive and divisive as religion should not be tolerated. Look no further than Dawkins and the other New Atheists for a pungent encapsulation of this stance.

It is, of course, a novel notion. So much so that it might be described as a blip or aberration in the long view of history. Faith has always informed and even moulded culture. Catholicism did it for the hierarchical solidarity that was Christendom, Protestantism did it for the dispensation embodied in the US constitution with its emphasis on individual freedom and personal fulfilment. You can find similarly religiously-endorsed social systems in India, China and other oriental communities. In his first major speech after leaving Downing Street (liberated from the Campbellian constraints of Not Doing God), Tony Blair suggested that some kind of interfaith alliance of 'good religion' versus 'bad religion' could offer the antidote to the fragmentation and fundamentalism of globalisation.

But since John Locke and then the Enlightenment the tendency has grown that faith must be privatised. This did not matter much for a century or more in Europe, since its culture had been significantly shaped by Christianity. Indeed in many ways the separation of church and state which followed was a good thing since it curbed the authoritarian tendencies of some churchmen and the ease with which politicians could manipulate religion. So things continued, with religion in Europe - and eventually throughout the world, all right-thinking atheists supposed - clinging vainly to the pebbles of Dover Beach in its melancholy long withdrawing roar. Marx, Freud, Durkheim and the rest assured us that religion would wither away as the world modernised.

The trouble was that religion then began to make a roar of a different kind. It happened at first without too much public notice. In the UK waves of immigration brought different faiths to our shores. Our national culture responded with the apparatus of the race relations industry. But the Rushdie affair, and most obviously 9/11 and its aftermath, turned the incomers, as one of them put it to me, from Pakis into Muslims in the eyes of the rest of the nation.

Many in our society continue to struggle with this. When it came to dealing with those we insist still as regarding as 'foreigners', the paradigm shifted from a patronising tolerance to one of fear. Nowhere is this more evident than among the metropolitan chattering classes. To the hyperbole of the New Atheists has been added the atavistic anxieties of those who once regarded themselves as liberals, Martin Amis and his ilk, for whom the values of the Enlightenment - freedom of speech and all the rest - have become barricades rather than liberations. The fear of Islam has been broadened into an attack on faith in general. Some religionists, both Muslim and Christian, have become unhelpfully defensive in response.

We have now reached an impasse where secularism has become a synonym for anti-religion and humanism is posited as an alternative to Christianity. The Christian humanism of Erasmus and the insistence of George Holyoake - the man who coined the notion of secularism - that secularism is not an argument against Christianity, but rather one independent of it, have been squeezed. Religion, its opponents argue, should have no role in law-making or effectively shaping the culture.

But what is becoming clear, and non-religious writers like John Gray now readily acknowledge this, is that we are emerging into a post-atheist society. There is a new assertiveness detectable in Christianity, though in some quarters it has unhelpfully found expression in seeing Christians as another persecuted minority. There is a growing sense among Muslims and other faiths that they want to have their say in shaping the values of wider society. All this must be mediated within the framework of a secular pluralism in which the dominant liberal rationalism will continue to have the major say.

The key question is can we now find a way of creating something positive and healthy from this crucible, or are we sleepwalking into an age of confrontation and blind defensiveness?

Faced with the unknown we either try to contain it, or translate it into something we recognise - which is why one of the favoured tactics of the New Atheists is to refuse to allow believers to define our own sense of the God; they insist, instead, in defining God for us, and offering only a caricature which they find easy to ridicule and to whom only a fundamentalist could ever subscribe.

We need to do something more than contain or translate that which we fear and do not understand. We need to find a balance which maintains the secularist separation of church and state but which allows the thinking and acting of religions to play their part in shaping the post-atheist culture which is forming all round us. It is the search for a new political language, and it is a massive and a vital task.