Prominent atheist professor Richard Dawkins described religion as "redundant and irrelevant" as he took on the former Archbishop of Canterbury in a debate.
Speaking at the Cambridge Union debating society, Prof Dawkins argued that religion hindered scientific endeavour by "peddling false explanations".
Dr Rowan Williams offered a counter argument, saying religion undoubtedly had a place in the 21st century and the issue was not whether it should exist, but what our attitude towards it should be. He added that modern attitudes towards human rights had their foundations in religious traditions.
The pair were part of a debate on the proposition "religion has no place in the 21st Century" in front of an audience of about 800, who packed the famous 200-year-old university debating club's chambers.
Early in his address, Prof Dawkins made a provocative comparison between Christian and Islamic traditions, describing himself as a "cultural Anglican".
"I'm grateful, by the way, to be a cultural Anglican when you think of the competition," he added. "If I were a cultural Muslim, I would have something to say about that faith's appalling attitude to women and various other moral points."
Stressing that his central concern was simply whether religion was true, he summed up his argument, by describing religion as a "cop-out". He added: "It is a betrayal of the intellect, a betrayal of all that's best about what makes us human. It's a phony substitute for an explanation, which seems to answer the question until you examine it and realise that it does no such thing."
In his address, Lord Williams said: "Religion has always been a matter of community building, a matter of building relations of compassion, fellow-feeling and, dare I say it, inclusion. The notion that religious commitment can be purely a private matter is one that runs against the grain of religious history."
Lord Williams added that respect for human life and equality was inherent in all organised religion. "The very concept of human rights has profound religious roots," he added. "The convention of human rights would not be what it is were it not for the history of philosophical religious debate."
At the end of the debate the house voted to reject the proposition, stating that they do believe religion has a place in the 21st century.