Britain is not entirely godless – but whether you or I believe in God is up to us to decide, not the cardinals, imams or rabbis.
A typical assumption the religious make is that the absence of God deprives life of essence and meaning – that the cold eye of reason is arrogant and robs life of its soul and mystique. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has colourfully described this as “spiritual homelessness“. He opined that: “Many people have a sense of being in a sort of exile from faith-guided experience.”
This sense of alienation cuts across theological lines. “It's difficult to have a spiritual life in a modern society,” believes Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born reformist Islamic scholar.
As a non-believer, I do not feel like a spiritual refugee slumming it out in some frontier camp for exiled souls. You do not need God or religion to experience the sublime and poetic.
The modern world has its own peculiar mystique and, as far as our knowledge of human civilisation goes, we are truly living in the age of miracles. Jesus could restore sight to the blind, so can our doctors. That said, feeding the 5,000 would be useful with the current food crisis and turning water into wine would make a great party trick.
Muhammad flew from Mecca to Jerusalem on the winged steed Buraq, so can each one of us if we wish. Modern technology enables us to do so many things that would've been considered superhuman miracles a couple of centuries ago.
In addition, the facts of nature we have uncovered are often stranger than the myths of religion. Instead of the seven heavens, we have an infinite number in which float billions of galaxies and trillions of stars.
On the other end of the scale, science has uncovered entire quantum universes on the head of a pin. For the truly mind-boggling, there is the possibility that “multiverses” exist in which everything that doesn't occur in our universe does elsewhere.
Yet that is not enough for some. “A godless society is one without a soul and one which anxiously tears itself apart in the void,” believes one blogger.
I don't know whether or not there is a god. If there is a supreme being, s/he is the type that set off the Big Bang and then ran for cover. In fact, I believe all religions are not heavenly imports but carry a clear Made on Earth label. So, where does that leave my poor soul?
Well, not believing in the afterlife carries with it the potential torment of the infinite expanse of nothingness that awaits. The idea of heaven, of course, has its appeal and has tempted many a sceptic to embrace the faith eventually.
As a child, I tried to get my head around the implications of perfection and eternal life. If we can have anything we desire in heaven, can that include sinful things and, if so, how can we then be perfect? Can we hang out with our friends even if they are in hell and can we rub shoulders with heaven's A list even if they wouldn't be seen alive with us?
Intriguing as paradise is, there's its ugly flipside: eternal damnation. Unless God grants a general amnesty, most of humanity is hell-bound. Many of my friends are non-Muslims: even if I am forgiven, what is to happen to them or, alternatively, to me if it turns out that Christianity or Judaism has it right? Well, I doubt I'll want for company in hell, but will I have time to enjoy it as I roast?
So, in the balance of things, I prefer no afterlife, after all.
Are people who believe that this life is all there is more materialistic and hedonistic, as the religious are often inclined to believe?
Religion does not immunise against the material and despite the wealth of the modern world, it is not more materialistic than the more God-fearing past. In contrast, the absence of religion does not lead to moral collapse, as has been amply demonstrated by the secular experiment. If the ancients were capable of hammering out a moral code, then so are we.
Of course, the ghost of religion still haunts our secular ethics. But this is no bad thing, since certain pearls of wisdom are timeless. However, morals are not set in stone tablets, and we should discard all those that do not stand the test of reason. Does that make us arrogant usurpers and wannabe demigods?
Modern science-based secularism is, in many ways, far more humble than religion. Although it has, sometimes excessive, faith in human ingenuity, it has knocked us off our mantle at the centre of creation. Now we know that we are collectively less significant than a grain of sand – albeit one with a big ego – in the infinite desert of the universe.
This growing knowledge of our worthlessness in the grander design of things can help to partly explain why religion, especially of the formulaic, unquestioning type, is gaining ground.
But not everyone is after the certainty of dogma and the assuring timelessness of tradition. Some people find the modern world, with its stark scepticism and cynicism in which even secular religions have been discredited, lacking in soul.
That could help explain all the pseudo-religious phenomena filling the vacuum: from the cult of celebrity and digitally enhanced superheroes to consumer products being invested with almost magical properties.
Unlike some non-believers, I am not hostile towards religion or the religious, particularly those who manage to strike a compromise between their faith and rationality.
Religion is not the root of all evil, nor of all good. Even if it died out tomorrow, there would still be hate, ignorance, intolerance, prejudice and self-righteous violence. These are all human traits, as is the will to resist them.
“Our life together in Britain cannot be a God-free zone,” Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor urges.
Britain is not entirely godless – there's still breath in the old spirit yet. But whether a personal God lives or dies is up to each one of us to decide, and not the cardinals, imams or rabbis.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 11 July 2008.