We hear sayings like "a Godless world," or "a Godless land," referring to places of extreme harshness bereft of an all-caring, omnipotent creator of our world and us, where an unloved soul can barely survive. And then we hear of the dominions of God's world or lands and recoil in revulsion at the horrors committed within them, at the hands of his wedded servants or the common man.
In many parts of the developed world, it is not only unfashionable but derisory to proclaim a belief in deities; such a stance can elicit mockery and even ridicule, as though you openly believe in, say, leprechauns. Polls in predominately Christian Britain, for example, show that about two-thirds of the population have no want for any God; they're doing just fine on their own.
That is not to say that religion does not have a great hold over many areas of the globe. Central belts of the United States are infamously rabidly religious, and Catholicism is growing at a rapid clip in Africa and Southeast Asia, places where if you tell someone you're an atheist you might as well be saying you come from Mars, so anathema is non-belief to everyday life.
But there's no doubting the colossal impact religion has even in the swelling ranks of atheists, many of whom seem engaged in a love-hate struggle despite divesting themselves of dogma. If I intensely dislike something or someone, I ignore that thing or person because I have no want for harmful negativity; but for a great deal of atheists, they're constantly barking away at religion when they should just leave it alone and get on with their godless lives. This week Pope Benedict propelled himself to the forefront of human consciousness with his sudden announcement that he is stepping down at the end of this month, due to his age, and atheists couldn't help themselves but to comment.
The pope news proved that religion matters, even though increasing numbers of us claim it doesn't. Is it the theater we're interested in, the celebrity of a global figure, the fascination with a medieval clique so far removed from our anything-goes lifestyles? The upcoming smoke-and-mirrors pantomime of conclave, where Benedict's successor will be chosen by locked-in cardinals who send up yes-no smoke signals, is certainly attention-getting, if not slightly mystifying regarding its public-relations device.
We don't need centuries of history to tell us what grievous harm the main religions have done to themselves, and there has been no let-up in modern times, from an Islam seeped in blood to branches of Christianity that hold peculiar views on women, AIDS, gays and human reproduction; and many have lost their faith in religion over their vicars' molestations of children, demonstrating that the devil really can be among us. Hush-ups, cover-ups and outright lies and denials by bishops and Rome have only added to the sense that the Catholic Church is not only out of touch but out of its mind. Asking healthy people to live non-sexual lives when sexuality is a fundamental part of being human is asking for trouble. So yes, it's true: in many cases, religion has been paradoxically killing off the chief deity it so avidly strives to serve.
A while ago our youthful clergyman came calling one night to see my elderly father, who is in ill health, and we began talking about what faith in the supposed divine actually is, what it means. When, I wanted to know, did he feel the hand of God touch him? He didn't know, he said; he wasn't sure.
He asked me what I believe and I told him that it is outside the realm of religious structures and I asked him the usual chestnut: If there is a God, why all the suffering and death? A young woman had recently been struck by a car in a neighbouring town and died. Why, I asked the rector, had God not intervened -- Superman-like -- in this simple episode to save her. "Because she was stupid," he said, "She didn't use the faculties that God gave her."
My God question is: Why the silence? (The devout, of course, will tell you that you can hear him through prayer.)
An over-arcing difficulty with religion is not just the murderous fundamentalists but the clubby declaration by adherents that theirs is the only worthy belief system and if you don't snappily sign up you're going to a very dark place indeed. I've heard this delusion from followers of Catholicism and Islam, and those who make such segregated statements do themselves no good at all.
If there's one thing I know, among all that I don't, it's that unquestioning religion does not advance the cosmic march of mankind and that the discovery of elegance like Einstein's e=mc2 -- where everything that exists is energy -- does. We remain at the dawn of primitive mankind, where true revelations are in their infancy and where we are just beginning to own up to our nature. In the distant, clear-headed future, we will have no need for the fictional, and then we will be free. That's what I believe.