A frequent complaint from non-believers is that religion has colonised the language, depriving us of the fair use of certain rather vital words. I’m a big fan of Marvin Gaye, for example, but I’d think twice before talking loudly about soul, just in case I might be misunderstood. “Spirit”, except in the single malt sense, is similarly out of bounds, and as for “sacred” – I’ll leave that to the cows. But chief among words that have been tarnished by religious connotations is “faith”.

In the past few years, “faith” has become a synonym for religious belief. Where once you were a Christian or Jewish or believed in God or had religion, now you are a “person of faith”, dragging with you a whole “faith” package of dialogue, initiatives, schools and even a Foundation. Some words indicating a lack of belief that used to be insults are now regarded by some as labels of pride: atheist, heathen and godless. But that doesn’t work for faith. Turn it on its head and you are simply faithless, or unfaithful, implying a deep cynicism or a fear of commitment or a lack of seriousness.

Does it matter? Yes, according to reader Philip Kestelman, in a letter published in this issue. He argues that we should strive to prise the dead hand of religion from the concept of faith which should belong to everyone. A recent debate on the Guardian website asked “What is faith without God?”, suggesting that in the absence of a set of “social norms and simple prohibitions” underwritten by hope for a better (after) life, such as religion provides, there was no motor to drive social progress.

But it’s precisely when faith becomes a matter of politics that real difficulties arise. In this issue we encounter two figures for whom religion and politics are intricately entwined. Experienced China-watcher Isabel Hilton outlines the current dilemma for the Dalai Lama, who is trying to persuade Tibet to modernise its political processes, including abolishing the political power invested in his own office. Meanwhile Paul Sims assesses the impact of the Pope’s recent visit, which is being claimed as a victory by both the Vatican and secular campaigners. His eyewitness report from the historic Protest the Pope Rally suggests that despite campaigners’ desire to keep the protest focused on questioning the Pope’s political legitimacy as a leader of a state, there was an inevitable backlash against the Pope’s incendiary comments appearing to link atheism and Nazism.

While arguments will rage on over whether Hitler was a Catholic and to what degree the Third Reich was atheist, it was clearly a regime driven by faith. But is there an important distinction to be made between faith, of the kind that leads to fanaticism, and conviction, which leads to moral clarity and action? Simon Heffer would like to think so. He tells Laurie Taylor why he considers passionate conviction a rare and admirable quality in politics, irrespective of political affiliation. He also reveals why he doesn’t consider himself a Tory.

Another kind of fanaticism characterises some enthusiasts for science, according to philosopher Mary Midgley. In the exultation of science, she argues in a specially written essay, we have lost the sense of reverence for nature, and humility, characteristic of natural scientists like Darwin himself. Neither does she have much time for humanism as a concept.

Another challenge to humanist values comes with the return of religion to our classrooms. Jim Mulligan visits an inner London comprehensive with pupils from over 70 different ethnic backgrounds to find out how religion is affecting the way they think and interact with each other. If you are worried about the encroachments of religion into education you can always start your own secular faith school. Francis Beckett makes a modest proposal for how to do just that.

Finally, let’s not forget that the season of goodwill is upon us, and once again this year we’re not going to allow the Church to hog all the festive fun. Stephanie Merritt examines the rise of atheist comedy along with Al Murray, Josie Long and Robin Ince, the compére of our very own Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show, now in its third year. If you haven’t got tickets for any of the six nights in December don’t despair. All our readers will be getting an exclusive DVD sampler of the very first show, featuring Richard Dawkins, Stewart Lee and Simon Singh, with a future issue.