This week the Observer devotes 3 pages to a debate Is religion a force for good... or would we be happier without God?. Pro were Samia Rahman (journalist), Jon Cruddas (Labour MP for Dagenham), Cristina Odone (author and journalist) and against were Evan Harris (former Liberal democrat MP), and AC Grayling (philosopher). The usual accusations were raised -- JC objected to the "absolutism ... intolerance .. illiberal[ism] ... metropolitan[ism]" of the "new atheism" --CO saw "the oppression, the hunting down of believer". EH countered by pointing out the "huge privileges accorded to religion and particularly Christianity in this country". AG asked "that religious organisations should recognise themselves for what they truly are, which is self-constituted interest groups".
CO went on to claim about "the religious framework": "it is about charity; it is about loving others; it is about respect, it is about volunteering. It's about not being materialistic." AG replied "Don't keep hijacking these notions as if [they are] monopolised by religion ... a very ancient tradition which pre-dates all the major religions in the world today and which they have adopted."
These debates never seem to get anywhere. Perhaps its because all the protagonists are essentially humanists -- they agree on what constitutes a good life -- but we need to set up our social structures so that they cannot be dominated by the organised religions. Such dominance has resulted in unfair restrictions on some groups and unfair advantages for others. This is not to persecute the religious.
SEE also Guardian Focus podcast.