In the last issue of Living In, I raised some questions about the way a secular state controls and stifles religious freedom; it pushes religious thought out of the public arena into the private sphere of individual values where it can do no harm. Is it possible to find a way for the secular world and those of faith to engage in real conversation? Can we discover more positive and fruitful ways of engaging in dialogue that crosses so-called ‘forbidden’ boundaries.

I don’t imagine the task of engaging in a dialogue of the necessary depth and rigour to be easy. One reason is that public debate is dominated by media whose competitiveness tends to drive them towards controversial headlines and brief ‘sound bites’. The inane chatter of talk-back radio guided by ‘shock jocks’ generally produces far more heat than light.

Back in May, the ABC program Compass gave air time to Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. The program itself was titled : The God Delusion – the Root of All Evil. I understand Dawkins is a well qualified and highly respected scientist, but as an advocate of the ‘new secularism’ he hardly seems helpful. Many in the church would welcome a challenging and robust conversation on the topic, but we were embarrassed by the paucity of his arguments. In fact, as one reviewer commented, "Richard Dawkins is apparently a distinguished evolutionary biologist, but as a theologian he wouldn't pass muster at undergraduate level . . ." (Mark Coleridge, Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn.) I imagine many Jews and Muslims were equally disappointed.

Of course, Jews, Christians and Moslems also struggle to engage in positive and fruitful dialogue with each other. Often our formal ecumenical conversations are overburdened by politeness and caution and produce little more than very safe ‘lowest common denominator’ statements. We are all too often anxious to avoid the points at which we hold very different views and therefore fail to challenge or be challenged in a fruitful way. How can we really meet each other when we hide the most significant elements in our identity as people of faith?

As I understand it, the various scientific disciplines proceed by way of robust debate. Both the old ‘laws of science’ and the latest cutting edge ‘theories’ are always left open to examination and always able to be challenged. Science thrives on properly conducted argument which is driven by a passionate quest for the truth. The same is true within the theological disciplines, whether they be Jewish, Christian or Islamic. The scope and subject matter of the various disciplines may differ, but the manner of proceeding is remarkably similar. In spite of the images so often conveniently promoted in the media, Jews, Christians and Muslims have always maintained strong intellectual traditions which are quite capable of entering the fray with the scientific community.

When poor science meets poor religion or, conversely, when poor religion meets poor science, we can hardly expect to be enlightened. But should the best of science and the best of religion meet with open minds, then there is the possibility of engaging in a passionate search for truth and a reasonable expression of it.