Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: What do these atheists understand of religion?

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On Sunday, I was on the last ever Heaven and Earth show on the BBC which, for nine years has been a gentle dale in the noisy world of modern television – pleasurable, tranquil, receptive, candid and at times profoundly revealing of the place of religion in today's world.

Not a programme for the rowdy and brash God bashers, obviously, in particular Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who really are perilously close to losing their flawlessly rational heads as they fulminate like demented fire-and-brimstone preachers. Such men know it all, they don't listen, and presume to judge people they won't ever understand.

Radio 4's John Humphrys has taken on the fanatic atheists in a new book about faith and the human urge to believe. Some aspects of our nature are not susceptible to scientific enquiry, cannot be dissected, categorised and validated in terms that would satisfy the "rational" disbelievers, whose intellect is colossal but imagination puny.

There are no experiments and tests to explain love, empathy, longing, the agony and ecstasy of the heart, the wild and wonderful creativity of the brain, that thing that happens to you when a full moon appears above the sea and is reflected in it. Sorry, but knowing the science of why the moon shines is irrelevant to the experience. Faith is the light of the moon above and that light in the sea, reality and spirituality, both making you tremblingly conscious of forces vast and beyond words. Impertinent scientists cannot know what they speak of.

I agree with Dawkins, the quieter A C Grayling, and with humanists that religion can and does disable human aspiration and will; it can and does lead worshippers of various go s to a violent hatred of "outsiders"; it can and does debase women; it can and does create a religious autocracy; it can and does encourage appalling behaviour.

Since 9/11 Islam, Judaism and Christianity have become dangerously politicised. Too many people today have developed an intensified religious identity. I also believe strongly that public spaces and institutions should be wholly secular. An established church, state-funded faith schools and increasing encroachment of religion into politics are bad for us all. Sixty years ago, the inspirational leaders of liberated India established a secular constitution without which the country would have been ripped apart by its many competing, received religions. The gods had to keep to their place in free India, but they remain vital to individuals and communities.

Having faith makes me humble and self-questioning, unlike the unbelievers who know they are always right. As Humphrys writes: "I have fallen into the habit of asking almost everyone I meet if they believe in God. And here is an interesting thing: it was only the atheists who seemed absolutely certain."

To these zealots, believers are mostly naive or stupid. We are also inflammable, easily led, malevolent, sadomasochistic and a threat to the future of the planet. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins proclaims that faith instruction to the young is worse than paedophile abuse. John Cornwell, the Cambridge ethicist who has just penned an elegant riposte to the Dawkins' rant, points out that this was the imagery used by Nazis too, for whom their country was a healthy body invaded by multiplying, Jewish bacilli.

The hysterical imagery is objectionable. But much worse is the dishonesty. Militant atheists have never accepted that evil comes out of their camp as well as ours, and good does too. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao were driven to genocide not by religion but cold, cruel power. None of these men feared God.

The churches kept alive resistance to dictatorships in South American republics at the worst of times; Apartheid used Christianity to justify racism, but formidable opposition came from within the church; Gandhi and Martin Luther King found strength to fight for what was right through God; faith gives Muslims hope in many of the most hopeless of states, and for millions across the globe it may be the only defence against the spread of gross and dehumanising materialism. Of the most awesome creations made my man, most were inspired by God – the pyramids, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the temples of India, St Paul's Cathedral and the works of Michelangelo.

Fundamentalist atheists want to replace old religions with their own. To them all previous prophets were false. Their fervour makes them as blind and uncompromising as those following the religions they detest. Science gave them no immunity – they too are infected by the virus of faith. Only, they would say, theirs is the only true path, and all other roads lead to damnation. Of course.