Clergy told to take on the 'new atheists'
By JONATHAN WYNNE-JONES, RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT - THE TELEGRAPH
Added: Sat, 03 Sep 2011 12:35:04 UTC
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.
A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as "a social problem" and says the next five years are set to be a period of "exceptional challenge".
It expresses concern that Christians are facing hostility at work and says the Church could lose its place at the centre of public life unless it challenges attempts to marginalise religious belief.
The rallying call comes amid fears that Christians are suffering from an increasing level of discrimination following a series of cases in which they have been punished for sharing their beliefs.
Members of the General Synod, the Church's parliament, will be asked at this week's meeting to back the landmark report, which outlines a vision to ensure a strong future of the Church.
Commissioned by Dr Williams and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, it says that religion in Britain is under threat from atheists, but admits that the Church faces many internal problems as well, from ageing congregations to rows over homosexuality.
Drawing particular attention to the threat posed by a new movement of militant atheists, led by Dawkins and Hitchens, it says the Church must respond if it is not to be pushed from the public square.
"One of the paradoxes of recent times has been the increasing secularisation of society and attempts to marginalise religion alongside an increasing interest in spiritual issues and in the social and cultural implications of religious faith," says the report, called Challenges for the New Quinquennium.
The Church must be "explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem," it says.
"This is partly about taking on the 'new atheism'.
"Bishops have a key role here both as public apologists and as teachers of the faith."
The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion. However, the document says that this intolerance is becoming more widespread and can be seen in public bodies, which it says must be challenged over attitudes of "suspicion or hostility towards churches and other faith groups".
In recent years, a number of Christians have taken legal action against local councils and hospital trusts after being disciplined for expressing their faith by wearing crosses or refusing to act against their orthodox beliefs.
"There is still work to be done to counter the prevailing tendency of treating faith as a private matter which should not impact on what happens in the public realm.
"This is a challenge for all churches and faiths, but especially for the Church of England."
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