We have an abundance of vicars in this issue. You can meet pop-star-turned-priest Reverend Richard Coles; Chris Holden’s report from Afghanistan features an army padre wearing a “black stole over his combats”; and the latest novel featuring fictional crime-fighting cleric Merrily Watkins is reviewed by Natalie Haynes. There’s even a pastor on the letters page, defending the churches’ record in providing social care.

You may be asking why a godless magazine has quite so many between its covers. Richard Coles, himself a one-time atheist, suggests one answer. Observing how New Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens continue to be fascinated by religion, he sees it as evidence of its tenacity. The more secularists try to ignore religion the more obsessed we seem to be with it. But perhaps this is inevitable given the long history of religious thought. As the distinguished sociologist of religion Robert Bellah argues in his new book Religion in Human Evolution (reviewed by Keith Kahn-Harris), religious ways of thinking have evolved side by side with humanity, and rank among the most fascinating and creative of human inventions, as well as the most corrosive and despicable. Small wonder they are not so easily shaken off.

It’s no easy task to disentangle what we know and understand about the world from the religious narratives and ideologies we have inherited. As Kenan Malik argues in his essay about the myth of the Christian West, the intellectual and moral lineage that has brought us to the (relatively) liberal, secular society does not belong to any one religious tradition. Rather, it’s a fusion of Christianity, Islam and freethinking. It does no harm to our case against supernaturalism to acknowledge that valuable thinking has been done under the roof of the monastery and mosque, and that mindless antagonism isn’t necessarily the path to greater knowledge. Critical thinking doesn’t just mean criticising.

Atheists are often put on the back foot by accusations that their creed is purely negative. So it’s refreshing to be reminded that there is an honourable tradition of opposition to bad ideas – not just among dissidents, but within religion itself. Jonathan Rée discusses the many ways in which religious thinkers have debated, doubted and dissed God in their journeys to revelation. Meanwhile, non-believers are just as concerned to prove that you don’t need religion to lead a spiritual life. Try the provocative path suggested by the poet John Burnside.

After that you’re going to be ready for a laugh. We’re delighted to oblige, by introducing you to Al Murray, the man behind our cover-star The Pub Landlord. Murray has twice performed at our annual Christmas rationalist shows Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, and on the centre pages we’ve compiled a list of highlights from the last three years to whet your appetite for this December’s shows (there are only a handful of tickets left, so be quick if you want to come – see back page for details). If your taste runs to more solitary pleasures, read Sally Feldman on the man who thought orgasms could free the world. Just don’t tell the vicar.