The Dinner Party Guide to Unbelief: Confused by the disbelieving-vicar debate? Alex Spillius investigates the alternatives to God

IN THE beginning there was God. Or maybe it was the Big Bang. Many of us are not sure how it all began, and many of us are worried about it - assuming there is an 'it', of course. As the comedian Arnold Brown said: 'Why are we here, where are we going, and will we be taking sandwiches?'

Despite the fact that only 1.8 million Anglicans regularly go to church, in survey after survey 70 per cent of the population claim to believe in God in one form or another. So it came as something of a shock when a Sussex vicar, the Rev Anthony Freeman, declared that he didn't, at least in the conventional sense, believe - he felt that there was nothing 'out there', a view that got him the sack and sparked a national debate about belief.

If we are not practising Christians, are we agnostics, atheists or even, as one Sunday Telegraph writer claimed to be, scientific materialists? How much longer can the muddled majority continue without identifying themselves as something? For those who feel an 'ism' coming on, what follows is a brief start-up guide to the schools of thought that your more exotic dinner party guests might adhere to and that your Sunday-school teacher certainly won't have mentioned.

AGNOSTICISM

Religious wets, agnostics haven't quite made up their minds. Taken from the Greek agnostos ('unknowable'), agnostisicism was first used by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century. It rejects the existence of God but leaves open the possibility that more convincing evidence might turn up to suggest that He does exist. But at present, agnostics haven't got nearly enough to go on, and it could take some time before he or she has, given their predilection for procrastination. It's the stance for the floating voters of faith, who are none the less likely to discover the supreme being in hours of need - such as on their deathbeds. Hopelessly vague, agnostics could be called 'Somethingists', as in 'I believe in something, but I'm not sure what.'

HUMANISM

A common thread in Western thought, from Petrarch through to George Eliot and popular music recording artists, viz: 'We are the ones, we are the people. . . .' or 'Me Myself I'. To humanists, man is the measure of all things. Spurning God, they strive for personal truth and goodness, and are concerned with 'moral issues of a non-religious nature' (according to the British Humanist Association), which may or may not be a contradiction in terms, depending on whether or not you are a humanist. Humanists have no church, no dogma, and base their ideas on what is provable. If this is the ism for you, you will be in good company, as prominent humanists include Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry, Claire Rayner, Paul Daniels and George Melly.

NEW AGEISM

Post-modern hippies, cranks with crystals, weirdos in white - some of the kinder descriptions of New Agers. But what are they and what is it? Perhaps it is easiest to say what it is not. New Age is against conventional religion and capitalism. It's about awareness, a new spirituality, holistic healing, Gaia theory, personal development - so much so that one enthusiast claimed all therapists were part of the New Age. It is a religious and philosophical pot- pourri. At a dinner party, the New Agers will be the ones with wide eyes and bare feet talking about finding themselves, or singing their old chart hits. Boy George, as a Hare Krishna, could be called a New Ager, as could Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Shirley MacLaine.

EXISTENTIALISM

You may or may not be reading this article. But then you may or may not be anything at all. You probably are something, however, but being anything is extremely difficult in this cruel world. We are imprisoned at once by our limitless choices and our uncertainty. God definitely isn't there to help you. Plus ca change, Jean-Paul.

ATHEISM

More than 100 years ago Friedrich Nietzsche declared: 'God is dead.' Only 5 per cent of us are willing to stand up and be counted as atheists alongside the great German philosopher. The problem with confessing to thinking that God is as plausible as Santa Claus (if not less so) is the follow-up question: 'So what do you believe in?' The most logical answers - 'Me', 'Making the world a better place', 'Bringing up children well', or 'Being good to my friends' - leave you sounding like Smokey Robinson on a particularly mawkish night. Still, Neil Kinnock's atheism did provoke Barbara Cartland to denounce him as the devil, so it can't be all bad.

MATERIALISM

Materialists are not people keen on arts and crafts. They are, however, rather pedantic, the sort who might interrupt someone beginning a sentence with the words 'I think', by saying 'Actually you don't think, that is just our word for a chemical process in the brain', before smiling smugly (and, hopefully, lighting a cigarette the wrong way round). Linked in many way to determinists, materialists are resolved to bore. The whole of life is dependent on physical processes; consciousness would be a figment of our imagination, if we had one. We don't have a mind, but a brain-machine. It is, however, a very broad term: Marx and Hegel, strictly speaking dialectical materialists, applied materialism to history, citing a series of causes and effects to explain its course. These days, materialism is the preserve of scientists and a small school of philosophers.

PANTHEISM

This is little fluffy clouds religion. God is in the air and all around. The universe is God, the earth is part of his body and mind. This is quite unacceptable to orthodox Christians as it obliterates the distinction between the Creator and his Creation. Though some current religious philosophers describe themselves as pantheists, the most famous exponents were Coleridge and Wordsworth, the latter besotted with Nature, particularly in the Lake District before droves of middle-class trekker-tourists brought up on his poetry arrived.

SEA OF FAITHISM

The ideology of a bunch of ultra-liberal, pinko, sacrilegious clergymen. Or so the fundamentalists would have us believe. The Sea of Faith is an ecumenical movement inspired by a book and television series of the same name by the Rev Don Cupitt, Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Exponents believe that the only way forward for Christians is to admit that God is not a being 'out there' but, as the Rev Anthony Freeman put it, 'a kind of symbol for my ideals and my values'. To some, it is the only future for the Church; to others, it spells the end.

(Photographs omitted)

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