Joan Smith: I am an atheist. Should I wear a big flashing sign on my forehead?

The Government has been sending warm signals to religious groups

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It's really not clear to me, in the midst of this heated debate about veils, crosses and so on, why I should give a damn about anyone else's religion. Does it help me to have a more enjoyable flight if I know that the woman on the BA check-in desk is a committed Christian? Does it enhance my shopping experience, to use the current jargon, if I can tell that the woman who serves me in Boots is a strict Muslim? Neither of them would know, on such casual acquaintance, that I'm an atheist - and why should they?

Now, of course, stung by the confidence displayed by political Islam, we have vicars and bishops up in arms over the right to display prominent Christian symbols. They've been assisted in this project by BA, which has tried to ban staff from wearing the crucifix while allowing Muslim employees to wear the hijab. I'm not sure whether this idiocy is down to muddled thinking or a judgement that the latter are more likely to kick up a fuss, but it's clearly unsustainable.

I can't resist pointing out that I predicted these events in this column ages ago when the French government took the eminently sensible step of banning prominent religious symbols from state schools. At the time, I was assured that the French debate couldn't possibly be repeated here - not in tolerant, multicultural Britain. But it has, and I can't think why anyone is surprised. Ever since it took office in 1997, Tony Blair's government has been sending warm signals to religious groups, inviting them to consult with ministers, influence new legislation and run state schools in return for a paltry financial contribution.

What a modern, genuinely reforming government should have done is disestablish the Church of England and remove Anglican bishops from the House of Lords. Instead, it's unleashed a tide of irrationality - only a couple of weeks ago, I heard Professor Steve Jones say there has been an alarming increase in the proportion of biology students who believe in Creationism - along with a hilarious contest between competing religions. Devout Muslim women (who have nothing in common with my secular Muslim friends) demand the right to wear more and more preposterous forms of dress, prompting Anglican bishops to insist they're entitled to wear really big crosses. What next? Atheists with flashing signs on our heads?

In a secular society, where people have a variety of religious beliefs or none at all, the only thing that works is an agreement not to bring flamboyant demonstrations of religious affiliation into everyday life. That's what we used to have in this country, alongside a wishy-washy sort of Anglicanism, until a combination of short-sighted politicians and religious zealots crossed the line. This, I think, rather than racism or so-called Islamophobia, is what's prompted the uproar of the last couple of weeks: it's clear that most of us, and that includes the Prime Minister, think that people like Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant who lost her discrimination case last week, have taken religious zeal a step too far.

I'd argue that the veil is a special case; it offends me not just as a religious symbol but because it represents a misogynist ideology. And, by the way, you don't improve the lot of Muslim women by encouraging self-imposed isolation from mainstream culture. ButI'm not alone in thinking religion has made too many intrusions into public life: opinion polls show a healthy majority of the population against government-funded "faith" schools. A culture that defends the right to private religious belief while insisting on secular public space is the only sensible option. Let's hear it for Enlightenment II.

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