Why the ethic alatheists shall inherit the earth

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The claim made on Sunday night by the eminent writer and atheist Joan Smith that she is more moral than the Pope has doubtless ruffled a few cassocks throughout the country.

The claim made on Sunday night by the eminent writer and atheist Joan Smith that she is more moral than the Pope has doubtless ruffled a few cassocks throughout the country.

Smith - or Saint Joan, as she should perhaps now be called - was appearing on Melvyn Bragg's superb new TV series Who's Afraid of the Ten Commandments? In a cruelly one-sided tiff with the representative of traditional Christian values, Paul Johnson, she pointed out that, unlike His Holiness the Pope, she at least had never stood on a public platform with General Pinochet.

It was conscientious atheists like her who were more alert to questions of morality than those obeying the dictates of established religion, she argued. Sagging on the ropes, Johnson muttered something about Christianity and love, which Smith dismissed with a brutal knockout blow. "Arrogant tosh," she laughed.

Beyond this enjoyable spat, something rather startling seems to be happening. Morality is suddenly a hot issue. As popular culture rushes headlong towards greed, brutality and voyeurism, earnest middle-class souls try to work out what it all means. No government soundbite is complete without reference to ethics or moral good. Yet, the more talk there is of morality, the more adrift and irrelevant the established religions seem.

Last month, an organisation called the Institute of Ideas organised a series of public debates, and onemorning I found myself on a panel, before an audience of about 150 in a chapel in north London, discussing society's general loss of faith. To my left, Howard Jacobson thunderously attacked the celebrity culture and the worship of vain idols, specifically David Beckham.

To my right, Mary Kenny reassured us that the Christian ethic was to be found in the work and teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

There was something weird about the debate, and it was only later that I realised what it was. God, alleged by many to be intimately implicated in matters of faith, had hardly been mentioned. I had argued that the new obsession with self - self-validation, self-esteem, self-love - was a form of spiritual Thatcherism. Once we were told that individual wealth led to social wealth; now it is individual contentment that is our primary responsibility.

Somewhere along the line, the idea that the established Church should engage in public debate has been lost.

A speaker from the floor gamely argued that Robert Runcie had taken a stand on the Falklands War, but somehow memories of that supremely cautious man's one act of mild rebellion - the Falklands parade should not be too triumphalist, he thought - confirmed the point.

Today, when it comes to the discussion of tricky public issues, the smooth-talking, media-conscious clerisy have learnt to keep quiet. They are as careful not to antagonise public opinion as any politician. When Kosovo was bombed, there were little more than a few perturbed murmurs. When gambling and greed in the form of a lottery are promoted by government and big business, hardly a word of concern is raised.

Recently, the murder of a child prompted a nauseating and sinister conjunction of public sentimentality and lynch-mob brutality: there can rarely have been an event in which the Christian position should have been clearer. Yet, with a few honourable exceptions, church leaders have chosen to remain silent rather than risk controversy, unpopularity, hostile editorials in the press.

Joan Smith was on to something. Morality has slipped away from these cringing clerics and is now a matter for the caring atheist. The Church is useful for saying a few plump, comfortable words at the latest royal birthday - but not for much else.