Archbishop: Religious Diversity Plays Major Role in Social Unity

Religion is fundamental to maintaining social cohesion, argued the head of the third largest Christian denomination in the world on Thursday.

In a lecture delivered at the "Building Bridges" conference in Singapore, Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams refuted the popular conception that a society in which different faiths exist side by side must be a divided one.

"Does disagreement about truth necessarily mean the violent disruption of social co-operation?" asked the spiritual leader of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.

"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," he added.

The archbishop is in Singapore for the 6th "Building Bridges Christian/Muslim Seminar," which 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."

Also at the conference, which opened Monday, scholars planned to discuss the different approaches of their respective faiths towards environmental, gender and diversity issues.

In his address Thursday, Williams acknowledged that violence had blemished 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 the Anglican leader.

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.

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

"The notion that social unity can be secured by a policy of marginalizing 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."

Building Bridges is a unique annual series that brings together Christian and Muslim scholars of international reputation in a seminar examining major themes of current interest and importance from a religious perspective.

The conference is hosted by the Department of Malay Studies, the Religion Research Cluster, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and the University Scholars Programme all based at the National University of Singapore. This year's seminar, which ends Friday, follows on from similar events in London, Qatar, Sarajevo and Washington D.C.