The continued robust, and with some faiths, aggressive existence of organised religion has been one of the great disappointments of my life.

When I was little, my parents dutifully took us to church, St Thomas with St Stephen Church, Telford Avenue, Streatham, every Sunday. The meaningless hymns and sermons washed over me leaving no mark.

We stopped going. No decision. It was no longer relevant.

Then, when I was 17, I spent a week on the Norfolk Broads, meandering down the waterways on a small motor cruiser. One day, when I was sunning myself drowsily on the foredeck, I had a revelation. I did not see god. Instead I saw, with the purest unanswerable logic, the reason why there was NO god.

I moved from agnosticism to atheism. I hoped to see the power, wealth and influence of all religions waste away in my lifetime. Some hope.

So, I now have a set position on certain issues:

  1. I am a republican, favouring an elected non-political head of state;
  2. The Church of England should be dis-established and the Archbishops and Bishops removed from The House of Lords;
  3. There should be no programmes on TV or radio promoting any specific religious belief;
  4. Faith schools should be abolished.

I am with the French on this: complete separation of church(es) and state.

The rise of religious nationalism – Christian, Zionist, Islamic, Hindu – is a danger to the world. They all embody mysogyny, xenophobia, sexism, racism and homophobia to one degree or another. 

That such religions, based on experiences, dreams, fantasies, desires, and fears of peoples mainly living 2,000 yeas ago and more, still influence the modern world is perplexing.

This view has been reinforced by a book I am reading: Heresy by Catherine Nixey (Picador, 2024). The title itself is interesting. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek haíresis (αἵρεσις), which orignally meant “choice” or “thing chosen”. As we now know it, and in all religions, it has come to mean any deviation from the official religion, especially if it threatens that religion’s establishment. 

Nixey makes the case that, in Christianity, accusations of heresy and their punishment, up to an including death, were used to eliminate an enormous number of alternative ‘prophets’ and their ideas and interpretations. These the new Christian religion encountered when it fought for space in the overcrowded religious marketplace at the start of what we used to call A(nno) D(omini) or, as it now called, the C(ommon) E(ra). Over the centuries, the Catholic Church ruthlessly drove out or killed the heretics and destroyed as much of the documentation relating to their ideas as they could.

When they had dealt with their internal problems they then started on other religions: the Crusades into the ‘Holy Land’ (‘holy’ of course to the three different Abrahamic religions); the crusades of the Teutonic Order against the pagan Baltic Prussians and the Lithuanians; the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of the Midi which started with the indiscriminate massacre of 20,000 Cathars and Catholics at the siege of Béziers on 22nd July 1209 justified by the Abbot of Cîteaux with the words: “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” – ‘Kill them all, God will know his own’. Nor should we ignore the many millions of native Americans, Africans, and others, killed in the name of ‘spreading the gospel’.

It is an entertaining, informative, occasionally very funny, and sometimes depressing, read. One of the most depressing parts comes from a quote from Saint Augustine critical of men who seek ‘to investigate the secrets of nature’. ‘Curiosity’ was a contemptible trait, he opined. Belief unquestioning was his demand. Many religions demand it still.