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Chatham House Debate: Should Religion and the State Be Separate?

Chatham House, London


YES: Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK

YES: Zineb El Rhazoui, Columnist, Charlie Hebdo (2011-16)

NO: Nick Spencer, Research Director, Theos

NO: Abdullah Al Andalusi, Co-Founder, The Muslim Debate Initiative

Chair: Dr Lois Lee, Research Fellow, University of Kent


According to a recent Pew survey, 22 per cent of countries across the world have an official state religion, while another 20 per cent have a favoured religion. A slim majority of countries, at 53 per cent, have no official or preferred religion while 10 countries are hostile to religion altogether.

In some of those countries with an official state religion, the role it plays is mostly ceremonial. However, sometimes substantial legal and financial advantages are conferred upon the members and representative bodies of that religion. In addition, countries with state-endorsed faiths sometimes regulate religious practice, which can include placing restrictions or bans on minority religious groups, thus catalyzing inequality and fostering repression, persecution and conflict.

Our panel will debate the arguments for and against the separation of religion and the state. Can faith co-exist with states in a meaningful and useful way in the 21st century? What kind of benefits can religion provide a state that secularism can not? What effect does the preference of one religion have on the rights of citizens outside of that religious group? And is religion too often discussed in terms of being a cause of conflict and division rather a force for peace and good?

The event will begin with a vote by the audience on the motion under debate and will close with a final vote to determine how many in attendance have altered their opinions.