You can just see it, can't you? Straggling lines of fifth-formers queuing at the school gates to defend their first proud wisps of whiskers. Some will be aiming for Che Guevara bravado, others for back-to-nature Bellamy. Some will encourage their locks to sprout wild and free, while others will trim and style them into submission. Some will even invoke the Revolution itself, claiming that their beards are living symbols of secularism, bushy beacons of rationalism.

There is no sartorial choice more contradictory and more revealing than the beard. No other facet of our appearance carries so many meanings and messages. Most of the New Humanist readers who wrote to us about their facial hair claimed it showed their lack of interest in their appearance as well as a vague affinity with radical principles. Yet how many of you have considered that by allowing your beard free rein you are also identifying with the lunatic excesses of religious fundamentalism?

Almost every world religion holds the beard in high esteem. Orthodox Jews follow the teachings in Leviticus which forbid the cutting of beards, which probably explains why Moses, all the Old Testament prophets, Jesus and God himself are always depicted as bearded in Western iconography. Islam instructs the wearing of beards, though Mohammed apparently favoured the trimming of the moustache.

Allan Peterkin, in his cultural history of facial hair One Thousand Beards, asserts: "Beardliness has long been associated with godliness. Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, Pan, Dionysus of Greek mythology and Thor of the Norse are all fine examples."

Early religions regarded fertility as a sign of divine munificence. Since they saw no contradiction between bodily appetites and godliness they would be relaxed about the display of sexual characteristics like the beard. Christianity, which championed repression, was less comfortable with such explicit signs of sexuality, and so frequently revised its facial hair strictures. Different orders of monks, for example, would develop their own shaving rituals. In Aix-la-Chapelle in the ninth century French monks had to shave every two weeks. In 1266 St Augustine's in Canterbury hired its own barber. Throughout the Middle Ages Christian clerics were enjoined to shave, even to the point of being threatened with excommunication if they allowed their beards to grow.

This atavistic fear of bodily hair is entirely compatible with a religion that sought to separate man from his animal origins. Sex becomes sin, sexual characteristics signs of vice. As the mediaeval Bishop Durandus put it: "We shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility and that we may be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of youth."

Facial hair literally separates the men from the boys, the body from the soul, the brute from the angel, desire from duty, beauty from the beast. This dichotomy can be traced back to the Old Testament twins, Esau the hairy man and brainy, hairless Jacob who stole his brother's birthright. It was the first recorded instance of cunning defeating brawn, but the battle has been raging ever since.

Traditionally, a good beard has been a sign of virility, hence all those beard references in Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies. The girl character has to don a false beard to assume real manliness. But as all the girls were being played by callow youths with high voices, many of the bawdy references would be directed at them and their questionable or unformed masculinity.

The elaborately shaped and groomed beard favoured by many gay men today is a neat inversion - an expression of a different masculinity, male but not brute, virile but with secondary characteristics. Young men may flaunt their beards to boast their sexuality, but in the past gay men resorted to them as a disguise. No wonder their women companions are still referred to as 'beards'.

Beard of the Year: 93 year-old Fauja Singh runs marathons for premature baby charity BLISS The history of civilisation is the history of our bid to control nature, and is played out every day in bathrooms and barber shops across the globe. During the Enlightenment the great landscape gardening projects sought to shape nature to the will of reason. Similarly, men at that time would wield the razor across cheek and chin to improve, to conquer, to tame the unruly growth that was untrammelled nature. Their barbers were the Capability Browns of the face, their lavish curls the topiary of the cheek.

"All beards symbolise Satanism," asserts Gustav Temple, editor of the men's grooming magazine The Chap. For him, the beard is a sign of laziness and slovenliness, of men who can't be bothered with their appearance and are somehow defiled.

Connected to his revulsion is a common assumption that a beard is somehow sinister. A man with a beard has something to hide, as he is disguising half of his face.

And it is this deep prejudice that can lead to discrimination, according to the flamboyantly bearded Keith Flett, organiser of the Beard Liberation Front. This informal network of beard-wearers defends the rights of those who choose not to shave and collates evidence of their unfair treatment. This month they are urging a boycott of The Passion of the Christ: "Mel Gibson's film is a very unsympathetic treatment of beards and we feel fully justified in boycotting it."

They see the invasion of Iraq as an attack on men with beards - a view echoed by beard-wearing MP Jeremy Corbyn, who specifically denounced in Parliament the racism as well as the general injustice of the war. Clearly it's not just bearded countries with lots of oil that feel beleaguered. Men in politics also have to watch their step.

Margaret Thatcher famously refused to allow beards in her cabinet. Blair was more muted with his, but in the first flush of New Labour victory there was a whole series of beard casualties. Stephen Byers and Alistair Darling were among those who shaved for success.

Frank Dobson didn't, and who knows whether his defiance cost him that mayoral election. Certainly a Labour party focus group concluded that his beard was losing him votes. It earned him the nickname "Tony Blair's poodle" and prompted rumours, especially among the press, that it carried germs.

Today's cabinet includes quite a few hairy chins. This may be because you can relax a bit in a second term. But it's more likely that each prominent beard carries significant campaigning spin. Charles Clarke may be ushering in a market-driven education system in place of the hallowed notion of scholarship for its own sake but hey, he must be one of us really - look at that old Labour beard, just bristling with proletarian solidarity. It's the same with our Home Secretary, who, while quietly demolishing human rights that have been enshrined ever since habeas corpus, is telling us through his beard that deep down he is still a socialist.

In modern politics, image is paramount. So beards, carrying their myriad associations with dissent and disorder, shiftiness and oddness, are considered dangerous vote-losers. They are fundamentally anti-establishment.

For political modernisers throughout history, the beard has been the outward, in-your-face symbol of barbarism - and is in fact the true origin of the word. Henry VIII, while somewhat impertinently nurturing his own little spiky number, attempted to ban beards as part of his break with the Pope. Peter the Great, in his bid to drag Russia into the modern age, put a tax on beards and installed compulsory shaving booths at the gates of St Petersburg.

And it's still going on. A new law banning long hair, beards and moustaches has been passed in Turkmenistan on the grounds that unkempt hair gives the wrong impression of the country and is unhygienic. The law will also apply to foreigners, so barbers are being set up at airports and border crossings. The measure is similar to a law passed in Albania in the 1970s and is also being echoed in Bahrain where government employees are not allowed to wear beards.

Keith Flett regards his beard as an extension of himself and his belief system. As a political radical he feels affinity with revolutionary heroes like Marx, Trotsky and Lenin. And also, he adds, brightening at the prospect, more recent glamorous figures like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Marx and Engels wore their beards as revolutionary weapons with which to bait the clean-shaven bourgeoisie. Intellectuals, scholars and bohemians have tended to favour facial hair. Darwin wore a wild beard and Dickens and Victor Hugo both had long and thoughtful ones. Others would sport one to demonstrate affinity with nature, rather as hippies did in the 1960s. George Bernard Shaw's was a Fabian beard, a combination of scholarly and natural. Freud's spindly goatee must have been a fetish.

As the 19th century progressed, men of power and influence progressively shed their facial hair just as they were shedding flamboyance in their attire, adopting clean lines and clean faces appropriate to men who had conquered libido and tamed nature. Clean-shaven chins were also a sign of wealth, as only a barber could achieve a really smooth finish. The safety razor did not appear until the beginning of the 20th century and from then on, of course, anyone could adopt the style of the bourgeoisie just as anyone, eventually, could aspire to affluence with an off-the-peg suit.

These days the beard seems to be on the wane in the West, except of course among increasing numbers of fundamentalist young Muslims, mullahs and rabbis. But I think there may be another switch on the way. The one consistent message a beard conveys is manhood. It distinguishes men from women. As women gain more rights, more success in the world and more confidence, men are increasingly facing a choice. Embrace the new equality and take on some female characteristics such as listening, changing nappies and leaving the seat down. Or rebel and try to snatch back supremacy.

So beware if you notice a sudden sprouting of beards in the corridors of power, on street corners, in the pubs and the clubs. It probably means that any minute now, we women will be out on our ears, flat on our backs, stuck in the kitchen and banned from the boardroom. Remember the Taliban? Now that's what I call an about-face

"All beards symbolise Satanism. Beelzebub is often portrayed with a pointy beard. They also represent a lack of interest in one's appearance and a lack of effort at one's toilet. They are acceptable only for genuine revolutionaries, who do not have access to proper grooming facilities in their mountain hideouts." -- Gustav Temple, editor, The Chap

"My partner intends to trim his bead to the style of Dr David Kelly, the scientist, who, according to the Hutton Report, committed suicide in July 2003. He would like to start a Dr Kelly Group, with lots of men growing that sort of beard and moustache. The aim is to haunt Tony Blair. Wherever Blair looks he would see walking, talking, Dr Kelly images." -- Ms Rasjidah St John, New Humanist reader

"I didn't grow my beard, it just grew with no intervention after I realised that shaving was a pointless activity. So the smooth ones, not the beardies, are those who decided to do something other than accept nature's default condition." -- Ian Quayle, New Humanist reader