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One for the atheists: How on earth does faith persist?

A LOT of people will soon be paying their annual visit to God.

There are worse things they could be doing in this sodden season. He and His churches have not had the best of years, after all. A few tipsy, half-remembered carols might even cheer Him up. You never know. Unlike Him.

I mock, of course. It comes easily. Sometimes I think it comes far too easily. When Anglicans, those pseudo-Protestants, create English national news with their difficulties over bishops and half the species, my first reaction is amusement. When gay people are being treated as less than human, I remember all the Bible prizes I used to win. I tell myself one part was true: Jesus wept.

The census for England and Wales says No Religion is now a party to be reckoned with. Even the usual rigged question concerning "affiliation" has not prevented a 10% increase in the number refusing to believe. On average, one in four of those resident below the Border have lost their credulity. Scotland is liable to be no different, when we get the numbers. You could call that a start.

It matters for all sorts of reasons. The British Humanist Association and the Humanist Society Scotland will give you chapter and, as it were, verse. Faith schools; worship in schools; bishops in the Lords; gay marriage; public service contracts for religious groups; "privileges" in broadcasting; that anointed Queen; above all, exemptions from equality law. The faithful who feel embattled can stand to be reminded, sometimes, that the rest of us care about rights.

Who are they, in any case, these believers? The census for England and Wales finds 53% of people identifying themselves as Christian. On the other hand, only 29% of those responding were prepared to call themselves "religious". Of the 53%, only 9% had attended a place of worship in the previous week. And – my favourite – only 48% of the 53% "believe in Jesus".

If true, the last figure means that I'm a better bet for God's party than a lot of His adherents. Given certain recent utterances on human love from His spokesmen, I'm not entirely surprised. But then, given all the static put up by those who claim the right to speak for the godless, it's not the kind of casting to which I object.

Dearly beloved, I stand before you this season as an atheist who can't be doing with professional atheists. The stentorian, patronising arguments are merely juvenile, and therefore annoying. The absolute faith in science is hilarious. The inability to deal with the tenacity of faith in every phase of human evolution is troubling, especially when it issues from intelligent people who claim to deal only in facts.

Don't get me wrong: I have not wobbled in my disbelief. When my teenage self came across David Hume asking who designed the Big Designer, the game was over. Like the offer of free will, like the Bible's self-contradictory nonsense, like Bertie Russell's cosmic teapot, like Pascal's shuffle and the fact that God's creation is oddly, suspiciously hellish, it armed childish doubt. We children were supposed to build a world around the nasty blood sacrifice, with big iron nails, of a fleshly manifestation?

I lost my Christianity early because it felt creepy and wrong. By the time atheism had become a publishing phenomenon, each book presented like fresh news, all the arguments – ontological, logical, metaphysical, epistemological – felt like old hat. God didn't have even one of an infinite number of legs to stand on: this I knew.

But I would still change the channel when Richard Dawkins came on. I would leaf through his books, or those arid things by Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris, and wonder what became of intellectual satisfaction, the feeling that supplants faith. Then I would wonder how Christopher Hitchens could be right about God and so wrong about Iraq.

The central problem is science. Or rather, the history of science and the philosophical problem of scientific method. Dawkins bets the farm on scientific fact. He is militant in the service of argument, righteous in the belief that evolution – this year's version, at least – explains everything important. History says he is bold.

Dispose of God, and what remains? GK Chesterton said, famously, that the problem with atheists is not that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything. Chesterton was a great writer, a bigot, and fond of a non sequitur. Nevertheless, he provoked the average atheist into a trap, one into which the Dawkins tribe, slow to evolve, stumble again and again.

You don't believe in God? So what's your poison? Science? Stick this leech on your leg, Mr Hume. It will fix you right up; science says so.

Have your humours sorted out, Mr Dunbar, and the poetry will be flowing again before you know it. Find your phlogiston, or your fundamental particle – stick some maths into any gaps – and all of existence will be explained. But don't worry yourself too much about falsifiability.

Even at Christmas, things can get a bit abstruse. The point is that science, and the methods involved, has proved laughable time and again. You will not wean humanity from obnoxious religion with that elixir. When Dawkins campaigns against Christian fanaticism in society and politics, especially in its American manifestations, he gets all of my votes. But I wait in vain to hear a problem addressed.

Where does faith come from, and why does it endure, despite all the smart, correct arguments, all the proofs and all the science? Russell's thing about the teapot was a restatement of the ancient argument over revealed truth. Someone says he knows there is a tea-serving vessel in orbit around the sun. No-one can prove him wrong. So why should anyone believe him?

They shouldn't. They should pause, though, and wonder about what is going on. The observable fact, as the godly have always said, is belief, not the teapot. At richarddawkins.net you can find news from the front lines of "the war being waged against reason, science and secularism". I could enlist happily. But I would still want to know what, exactly, I am fighting.

Those who deny Darwin? Those who deploy a god against women or gay people? Those who use a deity to preserve their own unpleasant power? Put me down as a part-time volunteer. But don't ask me to treat those who keep their faith as merely stupid. They too have heard all the old arguments. The challenge to atheists is not to explain disbelief – here's your teapot – but to say why belief persists.

I keep Christmas. I no longer go for the old dodge that I am observing a pagan passage of the year: that's voodoo by another name. A few hundred yards from where I write stands the oldest place of worship in continuous use in western Europe. The fact won't alter what I think, but it will make me wonder.

The godly are on the run, with luck, and it's about time. Dawkins and the rest have some obvious things on their side. Peculiarly awful acts have been excused in God's name. But why, if He's blessing them, were the godly faithful to begin with, and why do they persist?

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