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Religion has a huge part to play in shaping society

By Catherine Pepinster

September 3, 2008, The Guardian, London

The optimism that bubbled over in AC Grayling's account of an atheist getting his foot in the door of No 10 was akin to the delight of a Christian's hope for the keys of the kingdom of heaven (The rise of Miliband brings at last the prospect of an atheist prime minister, August 21).

According to Professor Grayling, the foreign secretary is one of the least equivocal of cabinet members about his atheism, and should he get the top job, there would be "many reasons why it would be a great advantage to everyone to have an atheist prime minister". Those reasons could be summed up thus: it would put religion in its place, because for far too long religion in this country has had too many advantages.

But I am not sure Grayling should be quite so chirpy about the prospects for atheism under David Miliband, who has shown, in my experience, a remarkable regard for religious faith and religious institutions. When he was environment secretary his people sought me out to interview him for the Catholic weekly I edit, the Tablet, because he wanted to communicate with the very people - those of faith - Grayling suggests he would wish to keep at arm's length.

The reason Miliband was so keen to court believers was because - contrary to Grayling's claim that "atheist leaders are more likely to take a literally down-to-earth view of the needs, interests and circumstances of people in the here and now" - believers don't expect people's hopes to be fixed on the afterlife and put up with the imperfections of this one. Vast numbers of believers are committed to the betterment of society through volunteering, politics and work in the public sector. They work for the relief of poverty, and for social justice. In the Roman Catholic church, liberation theology has highlighted the injustices of structural sin, such as poverty, and encouraged Catholics to act for social change. Its influence can be found in movements such as Make Poverty History and the Jubilee Debt Campaign. All the modern popes have urged Catholics to make social justice as much a part of being Catholic as going to mass.

As environment secretary, Miliband also understood that the Catholic church is a key ally in convincing people about climate change. He, like many in the church, sees combating this and preserving the planet for future generations as a moral cause. That is why the Vatican held its summit on climate change last year and why Miliband was a key speaker.

Miliband's understanding of the role of faith groups is not shared by all politicians, as the Von Hügel Institute's report Moral, But No Compass highlighted earlier this year; the report found that government profoundly underestimates the role played by faith groups in welfare and social cohesion.

Grayling says: "Secularism means that matters of public policy and government are not under the influence ... of sectarian religious interests." Would that they were! With the death of communism and the virtual disappearance of socialism in this country, there are precious few but those of religious faith who believe in equality and advocate, in the words of Schiller, that "all men shall be brothers". In a truly pluralistic, secular society, governed by an atheist at No 10, there should be space for that passionately held belief.

· Catherine Pepinster is editor of the Tablet

Source : The Guardian, London