It is Sunday and we've driven to a seaside town to see a friend's baby christened.

By inclination I am more agnostic than atheist, but still I regret that I cannot or do not believe in God. Regret because, as always, the sight of family and friends gathered in a hush of finery around a font moves me - sends a sweet, romantic shiver down my spine.

We "christened" (there's no other, better word) our own three babies in the garden, elected "godparents" (see above) and celebrated their births as something Special and Good, to be shared with the people we love. That was our own secular version, thoughI've also taken my vows as a godmother in church and I did not have a problem with it.

Well, not until now.

But here we are on this sunny, wintry morning and from our chilly pew at the front, I watch the baby's bobbing head. It is the softest, most vulnerable thing, the pulse visibly beating where the bones of the skull have not, at five months, quite fused together.

She's apparently just cut a first, early tooth and a glistening line of dribble runs from gum to white lace robe. I'm doing my usual thing of aching unrealistically to have my children that size and weight and softness again, when I hear the vicar's

monotone invoking the godparents to renounce on the baby's behalf "the Devil and all his works" and pray "that all carnal affections may die in him" ("him" being the baby).

It never used to bother me - this Christian premise that "all men are conceited and born in sin". This Publick Baptism of Infants - in which, let's face it, most of our friends participate - is principally about "sanctifying" the child and "washing away"

his "sin", so that he can be received into Christ's holy church, "that thing which by nature," according to the Book of Common Prayer, "he cannot have".

Well, I'm sorry, but I know that my babies were born both holy and clean. The question of how clean they remain will doubtless depend upon all sorts of things - not least, the way we bring them up - but, nevertheless, I have never seen anything quite as squeaky clean as a brand new baby.

And we are each entitled to our own perceptions of evil and its manifestations, but I find it repulsive to speak about the "Devil and his works" or "carnal affections" or even "sin" with reference to a seven-pound child.

The service ends with the baby screaming heartily and I'm with her. I stop my three-year-old using the kneeler as a launch pad and we go and eat the stickiest, pinkest cake you've ever seen.

Later the same week, my part- ner - who sits as a Youth Courts magistrate - comes home from a conference where Sir Ivan Lawrence, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was the opening speaker.

Expounding on the benefits of the new prisons for the very young - we're talking about 14-year-olds here - Lawrence apparently proclaimed like a medieval witch-ducker that Some People Are Actually Born Evil.

This is a man influential in framing the new Criminal Justice Act, which will make it legal to lock these children away in Secure Training Units - a euphemism for prisons for kids - last seen in this country more than 100 years ago.

"But," I say to partner, my mind still uneasily full of Sunday's church christening, "that means he thinks a proportion of babies are evil?"

"Quite." He stirs the risotto with a fed-up, what-can-you-do-about-these-people laugh.

It seems to me that Sir Ivan is wrong - not to mention misguided. But what I'm beginning overwhelmingly to feel is that the language of wrong-doing and punishment is a minefield, where such words as "evil" and "devil" are apt to explode in your face. Andthat - well-intentioned as it may be - religious-speak only adds to those mines.

When our five-year-old brought a re-telling of Noah's Ark home from school, we found ourselves highly uncomfortable with a story which maintained that Man was so sinful that he deserved to be all but wiped out by God. Whether or not you believe, howdo you justify to a five-year-old a world where people are so Sinful They Deserve To Die? It's our old friend "the Devil and his works" again.

Interestingly, my partner goes on to tell me that the Scottish system for handling young offenders is entirely different from the English one. Whether the child needs to be taken into care or has committed a crime, he is dealt with in exactly the same way in just the same court - a court whose only interest is the "needs of the child, not the deeds".

Moreover, the Scots have no intention of sending 13-year-olds to Secure Training Units, maintaining that they merely confirm in these kids the perceptions they have of themselves.

And, speaking of perceptions, I don't believe any of the well-meaning, liberal people crowding around that font on Sunday believed the baby needed to be "released" from sin or to renounce the "Devil", any more than I did. If you want your child accepted into the Church, fine - but isn't it time all the foul, fearful language and the crude metaphor was itself renounced?

Back chez Myerson, the story of Noah and the fact that we could not condone God's flood, led to a feisty bedtime debate about the treatment of baddies and why putting them in prison was a Bad Thing.

"We try hard not to send them there," the Socially-Hopeful-Magistrate-Father told his son. "We try to think of something else."

"What sort of thing?" the five-year-old wanted to know. "Setting the dogs on them?"

Ah well.