A "proper understanding" of religious faith is the best way to stand up to bigotry in all its forms, according to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. He praised faith groups as a "tremendous force for good" and said faith could no longer be treated as a minority hobby.
Pickles, speaking at a reception to support Coexist House, a new London institution being developed by the Coexist Foundation and Cambridge University's interfaith programme, criticised "violent extremists" and "aggressive secularists".
Speaking at the Temple church in London, he said: "We live in an age of confusion and fear about religion. Violence and conflicts are erupting around the world driven by man who claim to have a monopoly on faith and on piety. Many people are concluding religion is a problem, a relic of a past, [that] it would be much better if it didn't exist."
He said that starting a peaceful dialogue did not guarantee a peaceful resolution.
"Most people in Britain are proud of the freedoms that we enjoy," he said. But religion was seen as an "obstacle to progress" rather than something to be understood. This was a lazy and dangerous attitude because it left the fundamentalists unchallenged.
"Faith should no longer be treated as a personal hobby which should be for the few. This will only ensure that fundamentalists control debate enjoy a position in the public spotlight. We need to recognise that faith groups are a tremendous force for good, serving and supporting the downtrodden, the marginalised in society, and bringing our different communities together."
He said Coexist House will play a big role in promoting religious education and mutual respect. It will help deliver "religious literacy", increasingly seen as an essential tool to business, political, health and education leader leaders both nationally and internationally.
"Recent months of religious violence across the world have made many feel pessimistic about the future, especially the role of faith in Britain," said Pickles. It was now "more important than ever" to demonstrate that faith was compatible with British values such as tolerance and freedom and the rule of law.
British society would be the less without strong Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other voices of faith.
The Coexist Foundation last week organised London's first multifaith pilgrimage.
Professor David Ford, of Cambridge University, said it would be the first of many and the new Coexist House, due to open in 2020, will provide a focal point for future pilgrimages. "For the first time this country will have a building that is fully shared between different religious traditions and open to all."
Sir Bernard Rix, recently retired Lord Justice of Appeal, said no other city in the world besides London was better suited to a project such as Coexist House. "Diversity of faith is an opportunity for friendship and understanding, not conflict."