People who campaign for the removal of religion from public life are themselves guilty of an "intolerant faith position", leaders of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches claimed yesterday.
Dr Rowan Williams, Arch-bishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, argue that religiously-inspired activity in public life can be "radically inclusive".
Their remarks are made in a joint foreword to the report Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square published yesterday by the Theos religious think tank.
The report argues against confining faith to the private sphere, and says that religion will play an increasingly significant role due to the return of civil society, research about the role it plays in happiness, and the politics of identity.
"Many secularist commentators argue that the growing role of faith in society represents a dangerous development," the Archbishops said in the foreword.
"However, they fail to recognise that public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position.
"If we pay attention to what is actually happening in the United Kingdom and beyond, we will see that religiouslyinspired public engagement need not be sectarian, and can in fact be radically inclusive."
The Archbishop's remarks come after controversy in recent weeks over faith schools and the popularity of militant atheist Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University professor whose book The God Delusion has been a best-seller.
The Government indicated last week that schools in England will have a duty to promote "community cohesion" following its U-turn over plans to force faith schools to accept more pupils from non-religious backgrounds.
Education Secretary Alan Johnson said there had not been "sufficient consensus" over the move to give councils the power to require new faith schools to accept up to a quarter of pupils from other faiths, or none.
Director of Theos, Paul Woolley, said: "It is clear that
society is embarking on a process of rapid de-secularisation.
"It is no longer considered bold, brave and brilliant to argue that religion is an infantile delusion.
"Interest in faith is increasing across Western culture. Religion is firmly on the agenda of both govern-ment and the media, and Theos aims to speak into this new context."
But Terry Sanderson, vice president of the National Secular Society, claimed religious engagement "in the public square" was "all-too-often divisive and discriminatory."
He said: "Atheists or secularists may ask questions that archbishops would prefer not to hear, but religious intolerance in Britain, especially over freedom of speech, comes almost exclusively from Christian evangelicals and minority faiths.
"The more Britain becomes a society in which competing religions jostle for power and religious observance continues to decline, the greater the case for a secular society where everyone is treated equally."