Hermione Eyre: Atheists should be louder and prouder


This week has not been great for atheists. John Humphrys, concerned he might be becoming one, has been trying to rekindle his religion with a new series of interviews that started yesterday on Radio 4. The bill to mix up faith schools by 25 per cent was thrown out by the Lords. But good news also arrived, in the form of a press release from the online store Amazon, which popped into my inbox announcing "Atheist Book Tops Charts in Run-Up to Christmas". Yes, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion is still number one.

It only needs to shift another hundred-million-odd copies and it might even come close to rivalling the bestsellers of the television evangelist Oral Roberts. But even at its modest secular sales level, The God Delusion is something to rejoice about. It's a book that gives a real morale boost to atheists - and boy, do we need it. (I nearly wrote "Lord knows, we need it". That would have been a blunder.)

Ever since I heard Jonathan Miller on Desert Island Discs saying how he felt it was his duty to profess his atheism as frequently and loudly as those who are religious profess their creed, I have been waiting for an opportunity to say I was one. But no one ever asks. They seldom even give you a box to tick. You have to make do with "Other". It's lonely being an atheist. Atheism quite rightly rejects all the cultish signs and symbols of organised religion, but sometimes it feels like it has gone too far and has lost its momentum as a movement. There is no way of spotting a fellow non-believer. (Although the good folk at the National Secular Society sell "atheist and proud" t-shirts for £14.99, they have yet to catch on round where I live.) If an argument starts at a dinner party you can never tell if anyone is going to back you up or not. Bad table manners do not necessarily indicate godlessness.

Then there's the small matter of the social impression you make if you talk like an atheist. Imagine you are having your first profound chat with a new boyfriend. Do you cosy up to him and say, all misty-eyed, "I believe in something lovely that is bigger than all of us", or do you say firmly, after Bertrand Russell, "I believe that when I die I shall rot and nothing of my ego will survive"?

Worse still, no one has any derogatory terms for atheists. There is not to my knowledge any linguistic equivalent of a "God-botherer" or "Left-footer". You are too invisible, too recent a phenomenon, even to be mocked.

Dawkins' book is a great tonic, then. "To be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one," he writes. He even overturns Pascal's wager - the old syllogism that writes off atheism by stating that if you don't believe in God and are proved wrong, you stand to suffer eternal damnation, while if you don't believe in God and are proved right, you don't stand to win anything. Not at all, says Dawkins. Not believing brings rewards in this world: a better, fuller life without time squandered worshipping or fighting or dying for God.

I wish his book was less of an attack on religion and more of a defence of atheism. Shambolic, amateur non-believers, like me, need to be encouraged to be loud and proud. We are living, after all, as Dawkins says, in an age where the John Lennon's atheist anthem "Imagine", has been rewritten in certain parts of America so instead of "and no religion too" it reads "and one religion too".

Cuteness is not enough

Angelic crooner Corinne Bailey Rae scooped Best New Act at the Q magazine awards on Tuesday. You can see why: Rae's tremulous, tender vocal style is attracting a global following, and she has even bothered the American charts. However, I can't help wishing the other much-fancied contender for the prize, Lily Allen, had won instead. Rae, left, sings as if she comes from the Deep South, when in fact she hails from Leeds. She also sounds as if she really, really wants to be Norah Jones. Lily Allen, on the other hand, sounds exactly like what she is: a London loudmouth. And she has her own personal style - who else would rhyme Tesco and al fresco? Rae's fragile cutesiness may melt your heart, but Allen has something more: authenticity.

* It's important to be concerned about your carbon footprint. Especially when it comes to journeys you don't want to make. "I'm sorry I can't come and water your plants/ dogsit your Wolverine - I'm too concerned about my carbon footprint." But for journeys you do want to make, such as a trip to Glasgow to visit a friend with a very good whisky cellar, concern about your carbon footprint can dissolve. You can easily catch the sleeper train: an eminently civilised way to travel.

When I took it last week, nothing seemed to have changed since "Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat" was written by TS Eliot in 1939. The signal still arrived at 11.45 (pm). The berth was very neat, with a newly folded sheet (and a funny little basin you're supposed to wash your face in). Breakfast was pretty antiquated, too: a mug of hot water and a sachet of instant. It's a fun and a green way to travel, but is the service getting the investment it deserves?

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