There is an increasingly noisy and bad-tempered quarrel between religious people and non-religious people in contemporary society.
It has flared up in the past few years, and has quickly taken a bitter turn. Why is this so? AC Grayling argues that religion has lost respectability As one of those participating in it - and, confessedly, contributing to its acerbity - my answer might seem partisan. But both sides of the current dispute agree that it raises important questions about the place of religious belief in modern society.
Until very recently, people tended not to fall out with one another if they discovered that they held different views about religion. There were three main reasons for this. Most believers did not brandish their faith publicly, society had become increasingly secular in most major respects, and memories of the past's murderous religious factionalisms had bequeathed a reluctance to revive the problem. The latter's lingering consequences in Northern Ireland anyway served as a distasteful warning.
But all the major religions have become more assertive, more vocal, more demanding and therefore more salient in the public domain. Followers of Islam were the first to push forward: protests against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1989 were an early indication of what has since become an insistent Islamic presence in the public square. Not willing to be left behind, other faiths have followed suit. In 2004 Sikhs closed a play in Birmingham, Hindus complained about Christmas stamps Christianising an Indian theme and, in 2005, evangelical Christians protested against Jerry Springer: The Opera. But it has not all been about protests.
In Britain public funding has gone to Church of England and Roman Catholic schools for a long time; now Muslims, Sikhs and Jews receive public money for their own faith-based schools. BBC radio has steadily increased the airtime available to religions other than the established one.
Requests for extra protections in law, and alternatively for exemptions from the law, to cater for religious sensitivities soon followed these developments: criminalising offensive remarks about religion, and allowing faith-based organisations to be exempt from legislation outlawing discriminatory practices, are the main examples.
The Labour Government has been as concessive and inclusive as it can be to all the religious groups in Britain. This is well intentioned but misguided, as the example of faith-based schooling shows. If children are ghettoised by religion from an early age, the result, as seen in Northern Ireland, is disastrous. In the past decade exactly such segregation has been given a publicly funded boost in the rest of the UK, at a time when religion-inspired tensions and divisions in society are increasing. The remedy for the latter should be to ensure that schooling is as mixed and secular as possible; instead, tax money has gone to deepen the problem because the Government thinks that by giving sectarianism its head it will appease it.
Yet history teaches that appeasement never satisfies appetites, it only feeds them.
In the face of the growing volume and assertiveness of different religious bodies asking for preferential treatment, secular opinion has hardened. The non-religious response has come largely from individuals who have a platform or the talent to speak; and they speak for themselves, not for an organisation.
In the US, the religious Right numbers about 35 million. Recent polls show that about 30 million Americans define themselves as having no religious commitment. But whereas the religious Right is a formidable body whose constituent churches and movements have salaried administrators, vast funds, television and radio outlets, and paid Washington lobbyists, America's non-religious folk are simply unconnected individuals.
It is no surprise that the religious Right has political clout and can make a loud noise in the American public square, whereas the non-religious voice is muted. There are two main reasons for the hardening of responses by non-religious folk. One is that any increase in the influence of religious bodies in society threatens the de facto secular arrangement that allows all views and none to coexist. History has shown that in societies where one religious outlook becomes dominant, an uneasy situation ensues for other outlooks; at the extreme, religious control of society can degenerate into Taliban-like rule.
Look at the period in which liberty of conscience was at last secured in Christian Europe - the 16th and 17th centuries. It was an exceptionally bloody epoch: millions died as a result of a single church's reluctance to give up its control over what people can be allowed to think and believe.
The famous Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 accepted religious differences as the only way of preventing religion from being an endless source of war. Religious peace did not come straight away, but eventually it arrived, and most of Europe for most of the years since 1700 has been free of religiously motivated strife.
But this is under threat in the new climate of religious assertiveness. Faith organisations are currently making common cause to achieve their mutual ends, but, once they have achieved them, what is to stop them remembering that their faiths are mutually exclusive and indeed mutually blaspheming, and that the history of their relationship is one of bloodshed?
The second reason why secular attitudes are hardening relates to the reflective non-religious person's attitude to religion itself. Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.
This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one (or a very few) of the gods that have ever been claimed to exist.
No reasonably orthodox Christian believes in Aphrodite or the rest of the Olympian deities, or in Ganesh the Elephant God or the rest of the Hindu pantheon, or in the Japanese emperor, and so endlessly on - and officially (as a matter of Christian orthodoxy) he or she must say that anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods".
The atheist adds just one more deity to the list of those not believed in; namely, the one remaining on the Christian's or Jew's or Muslim's list.
Religious belief is humankind's earliest science. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are young religions in historical terms, and came into existence after kings and emperors had more magnificently taken the place of tribal chiefs. The new religions therefore modelled their respective deities on kings with absolute powers.
But for tens of thousands of years beforehand people were fundamentally animistic, explaining the natural world by imputing agency to things - spirits or gods in the wind, in the thunder, in the rivers and sea.
As knowledge replaced these naiveties, so deities became more invisible, receding to mountain tops and then to the sky or the earth's depths. One can easily see how it was in the interests of priesthoods, most of which were hereditary, to keep these myths alive.
With such a view of religion - as ancient superstition, as a primitive form of explanation of the world sophisticated into mythology - it is hard for non-religious folk to take it seriously, and equally hard for them to accept the claim of religious folk to a disproportionate say in running society.
This is the more so given that the active constituency of all believers in Britain is about eight per cent of the population. A majority might have vague beliefs and occasionally go to church, but even they do not want their lives dictated to by so small and narrow a self-selected minority.
The disproportion is a staring one. Regular C of E churchgoers make up three per cent of the population, yet have 26 bishops in the House of Lords. Now that religion is bustling on to centre-stage and asking for everyone's taxes to pay for faith schools and exemptions, this anachronism is no longer tolerable.
And all this is happening against the background of atrocities committed by religious fanatics in America, Europe and the Middle East, whose beliefs are not very different from the majority of others in their faith.
The absolute certainty, the unreflective credence given to ancient texts that relate to historically remote conditions, the zealotry and bigotry that flow from their certainty, are profoundly dangerous: at their extreme they result in mass murder, but long before then they issue in censorship, coercion to conform, the control of women, the closing of hearts and minds.
Thus there is a continuum from the suicide bomber driven by religious zeal to the moral crusader who wishes to stop everyone else from seeing or reading what he himself finds offensive. This fact makes people of a secular disposition no longer prepared to be silent and concessive.
Religion has lost respectability as a result of the atrocities committed in its name, because of its clamouring for an undue slice of the pie, and for its efforts to impose its views on others. Where politeness once restrained non-religious folk from expressing their true feelings about religion, both politeness and restraint have been banished by the confrontational face that faith now turns to the modern world.
This, then, is why there is an acerbic quarrel going on between religion and non-religion today, and it does not look as if it will end soon.
The Saw Doctors - 'Away With The Fairies'
A C Grayling fairies religion christianity islam non-religious