Faith groups are to be given a key role in shaping Government policies, a senior minister has pledged.
Communities secretary, John Denham, admitted that the Government had failed to include the voice of faith groups in the past but said he now vowed to include them in the decision-making process.
The minister, who has described himself as a “secular humanist”, said: “I don’t like the strand of secularism that says that faith is inherently a bad thing to have and should be kept out of public life”.
He also said that minority faiths such as Islam should not be singled out for special favours.
Mr Denham revealed that a new panel of religious experts has been set up to help advise the Government on public policy decisions.
The values of Christians, Muslims and other religions are essential in building a “progressive society”, he said.
But the move has been attacked by secularists who view it as a worrying development.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, criticised the Government’s move, saying: “It’s totally wrong to have faith groups as consultants”.
In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph Mr Denham argued that Christians and Muslims had important insights to contribute on key issues such as parenting and the economy.
“Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril,” he said.
“We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time.
“Faith is a strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity – the very values which are essential to politics, to our economy and our society.”
The Government needs to be educated by faith groups on “how to inform the rest of society about these issues”, the communities secretary added.
The religious panel is being launched this week to coincide with a series of interfaith initiatives designed to increase social cohesion.
It is being headed up by Francis Davis, a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, who is a prominent figure in the Roman Catholic Church.
Last month Baroness Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion, said there was a “growing intolerance and illiberal attitude towards those who believe in God”.
Mr Denham, responding to the Baroness’ remarks, denied that faith was being sidelined by the Government.
He said: “It has been suggested more than once that there is a secular agenda; a secular conspiracy even, at the heart of Government and the state which seeks to marginalise faith and marginalise believers. I don’t believe that is the case.”
In July two writers warned that an influential elite class of secularists is making it increasingly difficult for Christian views to be heard in politics.
The Daily Telegraph commentator Ed West said groups like the National Secular Society are gaining success in their campaign for a “state where religion is only allowed in private”.
Tim Montgomerie, the editor of a leading Conservative blog, warned of “a secular fundamentalism that is trying to push people of faith outside the public square”.
In March former Prime Minister Tony Blair warned UK Christians they live in an age of “aggressive secularism” and criticised recent “ludicrous decisions” which saw them punished for expressing their beliefs.
A few days earlier, his wife, Cherie Blair, had commented: “Christians are often being marginalised and faith is something few people like to discuss openly”.
In the same month, during a Westminster Hall debate, MPs said that despite Christians making a vital contribution to British Society, they were being marginalised by public bodies.
Andrew Selous MP called the debate following a spate of cases where Christians had been sidelined for expressing their faith.