Yesterday, Professor Charles Taylor was presented with the 2007 Templeton Prize by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace. Later in the day he joined leading British religious figures at a press conference to explore how spirituality can be used to tackle bigotry and violence.

Some would argue this makes no sense. In the wake of the terrorist convictions of five British-born Muslim men, it is easy to denounce religion as the cause of the problem of terrorism and violence in our communities. The shrill voices of blinkered secularists get ever louder by the day – religion is the cause of all evil in our world, they argue, not the solution; without religion, the world would be a better place.

Yesterday, Charles Taylor spoke carefully chosen and timely words reminding us otherwise.

A Canadian philosopher, Professor Taylor’s work has focused on ideas of identity and spirituality and their relevance to modern society. Recently, he has begun to explore the relationship between spirituality and violence, looking specifically at how societies must reach out to disenchanted and disenfranchised young people of all backgrounds in Western communities.

Speaking at the press conference, he made the exceptionally valid point that there are violent forms of any belief system, including secular humanism.

“We can’t talk about violence in terms of religion versus non-religion,” he insisted, using in illustration the brutal regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the horror of Tamil Tiger suicide bombings. He also warned against the temptation to demonise one or other religion or belief system over another:

“No one is immune from being recruited to group violence, from the temptation to target another group with is made responsible for all our ills, from the illusion of our own purity which comes from our readiness to combat this evil force with all our might. We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project.”

Charles Taylor has argued that those who pursue a secularist agenda alone prevent crucial insights which might otherwise help a global community exposed increasingly to clashes of culture, morality, nationality and religion, writing:

“Without spiritual initiatives, the best-intentioned efforts to put human history on a new and more humane footing have often turned history into a slaughter bench. It is a sobering thought that Robespierre, in the first discussion on the new revolutionary constitution for France, voted against the death penalty. Yet the path to this peaceable republic, which would spare the lives of even its worst criminals, somehow led through the nightmare of the Terror.”

Humanity will always strive for meaning and direction and look to the transcendent – thank God – however hard the secular fundamentalists will rail at humanity to do otherwise. The ‘secular society’ so trumpeted in the 1960s and beyond has proved to be largely a myth. We are just as spiritual and religious as we have ever been. All that has happened is that religion has been reinvented – again. The face of our spirituality has simply changed; we simply express it in different words and practise it with different rites.

As Charles Taylor says, what we need now is new insight into the human propensity for violence, together with an urgent understanding of how “the only way individuals can be prevented for heading for terrorism is to have a better answer to the meaningfulness of life.”

His prize is richly deserved.

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