You might be forgiven for believing that this is a religious country. Throughout last year we were assaulted by assertions from religious leaders that we live in a “multi-faith” society. Anglican and Muslim clerics found common cause in their claim that while Britain may no longer be a Christian nation, it retains an underlying and unifying faith. And this religious foundation, they maintained, can be called on to resolve the inevitable tensions of multiculturalism.

Though such ideas are hardly novel the new twist was the self-consciously “intellectual” media joining in with the anti-secularists in a retreat from unbelief. Prospect magazine’s November cover story pronounced that secularisation was dead and Europe was facing an inevitable rise in religiosity. And a recent issue of the venerable Spectator devoted page after page to a repudiation of the idea of a secular Britain. From the leader titled “Evil at a holy time” (“By making himself flesh in the form of Jesus, God interceded definitively in human history”), to Rod Liddle claiming that “Protestant Christianity is the very essence of what it is to be British”, to historian Jonathan Clark arguing that the west is “in denial about it’s Christian roots”, the message was unequivocal: secularism is just bad faith, while Christianity is central to the character of Europe. These writers are in august company. As Fred Halliday reveals in our cover story, the Pope himself is currently preparing the ground for his long-promised assault on secularism and attempt to re-Christianise Europe.

A more reliable test of whether the people of the UK are religious is to ask them. In our centre pages Andrew Copson reports on the MORI poll, commissioned by the British Humanist Association, which did just that. The result is a heartening refutation of those nebulous clerical claims. At least a third of the population, apparently, is actually humanist. A Guardian/ICM poll of about the same size, published two days before Christmas, produced remarkably similar findings: 82 per cent of their respondents thought religion was a cause of tension rather than a force for good and more than two thirds of us have no religious belief. So somewhere between 17 and 34 million people should be ready to meet the Pope if he brings his battle to our shores.

None of this evidence appears to have penetrated the devout chambers of Westminster, where education minister Lord Adonis is preparing guidelines for the teaching of Intelligent Design in British schools. The proposal is for ID to be taught as part of the religious education curriculum, as an aid to understanding different beliefs. But why include the fantasy that complexity proves the existence of a supernatural designer rather than, say, astrology or the notion that fairies live at the bottom of the garden?

It may seem harmless to allow this “theory” to be aired in the meaningless area of religious education, rather than to be taught as a science. But once this totally non-scientific, anti-empirical world view has gained a toehold in schools there is far more opportunity to present it as a credible alternative to Darwinism. The whole thing smacks of a cave-in to the creationist lobby, such as the well-funded but inaccurately named “Truth in Science” group. As Richard Dawkins commented to the Sunday Times, this is nothing but a “rebranding exercise to get creationism into schools”. You can read more about Dawkins’s views and how he has responded to the reception of his book The God Delusion, in Laurie Taylor’s interview on page 16.

Finally, a coda to the chorus of praise for James Brown, who died on Christmas day. For those readers who are uncomfortable with soul music, given its apparent metaphysical grounding and its links to the Christian church, let us reassure you that this great musician was an important figure for humanism. He was, after all, the father of funk. If soul was gospel gone secular, then funk was gospel gone bad. Laced with raw physicality and high octane energy, James Brown’s funk shrieked freedom and rebellion, reclaiming the ascendancy of rhythm in its unfettered Africanised beat. Brown transformed generations of fans into sex machines. And, as you can see from our celebration of kissing on page 26, there’s nothing more humanist than that. ■