Questions of belief – the state and religion today

Charlie Brown's friend Linus in Schulz's iconic Peanuts comic strip has a great line: 'There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people,' he says, 'religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.'

The context is his annual predilection for sitting in the pumpkin patch each Halloween night waiting for the appearance of the Great Pumpkin. Inevitably the Great Pumpkin fails to show but Linus, unbroken and unbowed, always turns up to wait again for his imaginary character the following year.

This column long since broke the embargo on politics but has generally held steadfast in keeping its distance from religion. And I swear I've never ever mentioned the Great Pumpkin before.

This week I feel justified in breaking those two taboos at once because religion has been riding at the top of the news agenda – more of agendas later – and because religion and the Great Pumpkin are, after all, pretty much the same thing. That's what most of us believe or, to put it another way, don't believe, isn't it?

Although the 2001 national census had almost three-quarters of us claiming to be Christians, by 2011 that figure had fallen to just over one half. And even among that wilted number, many claim to be Christians in the same easy way that we sign up on auto pilot to being Church of England when filling in official forms. Or with the same lack of understanding that we schoolboys decided that being either roundheads or cavaliers was the differentiating characteristic between Jew and gentile rather than a reflection of our parents' attitudes to circumcision as a route to superior personal hygiene.

The current flurry of religious fervour has arisen from the collision of a number of related and unrelated events. A sort of big bang.

The blue touch paper was lit by arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. His Foundation for Reason and Science commissioned the respected pollster Ipos Mori to find out a bit more about the half of us who claim to be Christians. It found astonishingly low levels of religious knowledge, belief and practice, he concluded.

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Now into the fray comes the National Secular Society on behalf of one-time Bideford town councillor Clive Bone, a non-believer who left the council because it refused to remove prayers from the top of the agenda at its meetings. At the high court in London on February 10, Mr Justice Ouseley duly ruled that saying prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council was not lawful.

The cat is now truly among the pigeons or, as some claim, the Christians are being thrown to the lions. The erstwhile archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey says Christianity is being marginalised and Eric 'Fat Controller' Pickles says he'll get the law changed.

Muddying the parted waters yet further, the ever controversial Conservative party co-chairman and Muslim, Baroness Warsi, then waded in with her size 9s, suggesting Christianity ought to be more central to public life and warning of the evils of militant secularisation. By which I suppose she meant that instead of just being ambivalent, the atheists, agnostics and secularists are now, to borrow a line, marching as to war.

At the crux, so to speak, of all this is the central question: to what extent should a religion practiced by a minority of the population be foisted on the rest? Personally, I don't sense the militancy feared by Warsi in a country that, generally speaking, has a pretty good 'live and let live' attitude. However, in our increasingly secular society there appears to be a growing resentment that the state is not properly separated from religion and there are misgivings about the likes of Warsi and her glorious leader, Call Me Dave Cameron, advocating closer links between the two.

The unedifying example set by candidates in the race for the Republican nomination for the US presidency (in which Mr Santorum is surely only a couple of vowels away from being locked away in one) should be sufficient warning not to go in that direction. I found the answer to all this while waiting for a tube train last week. It was printed on a big poster pasted on the tunnel wall advertising Alain de Botton's new book Religion For Atheists. Instead of knocking religion, the publicity message asked why we shouldn't just 'enjoy the best bits'.

A homophobic history steeped as much in prayers for victory as for peace, and as much in exercising power as humility suggests that religion has less to teach us about how to live than its supporters might think. That is not to say we shouldn't follow its more rational moral guidance to respect and treat well with each other.

And churches themselves are beautiful buildings that delight our eyes and can lift our mood even if we don't subscribe to them being the houses of God. So long as people are prepared to chip in for their upkeep, why wouldn't they want to get married in them or just pop in for a good old sing without worrying too much about the words, fighting the good fight with all their might or abiding with me? Even if it is just for Christmas and not for life, there's nothing wrong with a rousing carol and a few flying fairies.

But neither should we attempt to disabuse of their beliefs those who find comfort in them. Anyway, there's something quite endearing about Linus faithfully returning to the pumpkin patch each Halloween night, even if the Great Pumpkin never arrives.

•This article was first published on February 23, 2012.