Social cohesion needs religion - Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has argued that religion is fundamental to maintaining social cohesion.

In a lecture delivered on Thursday at the Building Bridges Conference in Singapore, Dr Williams refuted the popular conception that a society in which different faiths exist side by side must necessarily be a divided one.

"Does disagreement about truth necessarily mean the violent disruption of social co-operation?" asked Dr Williams.

"It does not, and [...] on the contrary, a robust view of disagreement and debate between religious communities may play a major role in securing certain kinds of social unity or cohesion."

The Archbishop of Canterbury is in Singapore for the 6th Building Bridges Christian Muslim Seminar in Singapore, which opened on Monday. The seminar has brought together more than 30 distinguished Christian and Muslim scholars to examine a number of issues of common interest including this year's theme 'Humanity in Context: Christian and Muslim perspectives on being human'.

The scholars will also discuss the different approaches of their respective faiths towards environmental, gender and diversity issues.

In his address on Thursday, the Archbishop went on to acknowledge that violence had featured in the history of all religions, Christianity as well as Islam.

"There is no religious tradition whose history is exempt from such temptation and such failure," stated Dr Williams.

He asserted, however, that religious diversity and social cohesion could not only co-exist, but also help strengthen social harmony, so long as governments were willing to listen to the views of faith communities.

He also challenged the assumption that secular beliefs should automatically trump religious ones.

"The notion that social unity can be secured by a policy of marginalising or ignoring communities of faith because of their irreducible diversity rests on several errors and fallacies, and its most serious and damaging effect is to give credibility to the idea of a neutral and/or self-evident set of secular principles which have authority to override the particular convictions of religious groups," he said.

"This amounts to the requirement that religious believers leave their most strongly held and distinctive principles at the door when they engage in public argument: this is not a good recipe for lasting social unity."