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The RSA’s strapline is 21st century enlightenment. Brenda Watson FRSA argues for more discussion of religion, which she believes has a legitimate place in public discourse.  

Whilst I welcome the fact that the RSA has had some interesting events on the subject of faith, including a recent speech by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, more could be done to ensure that religion is not marginalized.

We need to be open-minded; to close our minds to ‘religion’ per se is a contradiction, and even hypocritical. Organisations like the RSA, embrace a forward-thinking, questing, and pragmatic outlook on the world. The Enlightenment sought to make reason a corner-stone of life. So how can it be rational to regard the whole of religion as inappropriate for the public domain? This fails to acknowledge the huge range of opinions within religions.

Reason derives from whole-of-life life experience and so cannot be faith-free; the ‘reason/faith’ divide is based on a false dichotomy. While individual religious or irreligious believers alike may be irrational people, the majority, and especially the saints and scholars of all the great world religions, have always appealed to reason in interpretation of their faiths. To imply that Aquinas was bereft of reason seems illogical, just as to say the same of, for example, a Rowan Williams or a Jonathan Sacks.

In a liberal democracy religious and irreligious people have equal rights. The state exists for all its citizens, not just for some. If an atheist is offended at the wearing of a burka, turban or cross, a religious person may be equally upset by their banning. Reciprocity should mean balance and common sense, with state intervention only as needed to keep the peace. Such matters warrant proper public expression.

Public debate would also benefit from religious contributions. Survival of democracy in a world of chicanery requires maximum public involvement by all its well-wishers. The help of democratic religious people should therefore be welcomed, not spurned or regarded with suspicion. As with secular views, the properly liberal and democratic way for such positive input to be promulgated is through public debate. Marginalisation and occasional public scorn of religion does not encourage open debate. It drives religion underground and into ghettoes. This removes one of our best ways of controlling religious extremism inimical to a democratic society.  Intelligent debate is a major safeguard against the rise and promotion of perverted beliefs. For the safety of society, should not religion be properly and respectfully acknowledged?

Liberal religions helped to establish and support the democratic state. Indeed the fundamental creed behind democracy - that all people are equal as persons - derives historically from fundamental Christian doctrine. The notion of the equality of all was not sourced from ancient civilisations. For example, the democracy of Athens was reserved for only a quarter of the population; slaves and women were excluded. Care for the vulnerable and deprived has been absent from almost all civilisations except our own.

In her recent article in the RSA Journal Cecile Laborde argues that public discourse should take place in a secular language, which is available to all, secular and religious alike. This proposal imposes a burden on religious people that atheist and agnostics do not share because the secular is their language; they do not have to acquire another. Furthermore, it prioritises atheism by making the non-God perspective the default position. An anti-religious mindset was understandable hundreds of years ago when religious institutions used their power to be obscurantist and prevent proper academic freedom. But in the West that situation no longer applies. Are we perhaps behaving like teenagers who may rebel against the parental control that harnesses them, a rebellion which becomes absurd in the middle-aged?

The RSA is well placed to play fairer with religion by acknowledging publicly that religious perspectives are as permissible in public as non-religious ones. Should not its charters and mission statements acknowledge that some people see these virtues as grounded in God, whilst others affirm them as humanist? Affirming but critical treatment should be meted out by government, the media, in philosophy, in political debate, in education, to religious people, atheists and agnostics alike.


Dr. Brenda Watson is an educationalist - teacher, lecturer and author of several books - her main subjects being History, Music, Philosophy and Religion.

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