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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

4th March 2013

Religion and Secularism in a Global Age

(left) Dr Ian Linden, Director of Policy, Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Nigel Baker, British Ambassador to the Holy See. “Religion and Secularism in a Global Age” conference. Pontifical Gregorian University, 1 March 2013

Benedict XVI has stepped down. We await the election of his successor. But life and business at the Holy See, at least for this Embassy, go on – almost as usual.

On 1 March, St David’s day, I attended and chaired the afternoon session of a one day conference organised by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, in co-operation with the British Embassy, the Pontifical Council for Culture and its Courtyard of the Gentiles programme, the American University of Rome, and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The theme was the relationship between religion and secularism in a global age, and the organisers brought together a wide range of speakers from across the world – India, Turkey, Canada, France, Qatar, the UK and Italy – to share their experiences of the tensions between the religious and secular world views.

We explored the conflicts between them, but also how their different perspectives might help illuminate the other in the light of the challenges faced by our societies today.

In my own concluding remarks, I noted that the relationship between religion and secularism – or faith and reason, as set out by Pope Benedict at Westminster Hall in September 2010, and in Berlin in September 2011 – will continue to be one of the great themes of our time.

We heard from the speakers how this represented a challenge both for the liberal democracies of the western tradition, as much as for the emerging powers of the future.

One day could not do justice to the importance of the theme. Discussion ranged from the complex interface of religious and political identity, to the danger of a ‘de-culturalised’ religion (cut off from its historical and cultural roots) drifting into fundamentalism.

We heard a strong critique of Europe’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of modern Islam, but also why Islamism fails to comprehend the needs and requirements of the modern state and the aspirations of the younger generations from Casablanca to Cairo.

We learned how religiosity can flourish within the secular state, and also ways in which the state may also be asked to hold the ring in the relationships between different faiths within its borders.

Above all, we heard how we can learn from solutions achieved on the other side of the world. One of the roles of Rome, home of the global Catholic Church, is to be a place of encounter between the different world religions, and where we think through the roles of religions in contemporary society.

In a global context where, at least outside of western Europe, religion is more important than ever, this remains a place where a diplomat can continue to learn a  great deal about the way the world turns.

1 comment on “Religion and Secularism in a Global Age

  1. You seem to be a little confused when you say: “I noted that the relationship between religion and secularism – or faith and reason, as set out by Pope Benedict…” Faith is not the same as religion, and CERTAINLY secularism is not a synonym for reason!!! I am afraid you will have big surprises in store after this Conclave.

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About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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