The great thing about the eclipse is that it is not man-made, it is bloody natural; so it must be significant

A strange and unnerving phenomenon is occurring all around us, something that no soothsayer ever predicted. It is eclipse snobbery. I am fed up with people saying, "And what will you be doing for the eclipse?" before telling me that they are going to Wales to look at it through a CD or that they have borrowed an entire field in Cornwall because it's "like, really important".

A lovely example of eclipse snobbery appeared in the Sunday Times when Richard Dawkins revealed that he was going to go to Cornwall himself until he heard that it would be overrun by "druids, astrologers and new age airheads". He is taking his family to Austria to stare at the sun instead.

Very rational.

At least when one is quizzed about the millennium, it is perfectly acceptable to be all grumpy and say that you plan to spend it in bed. The great thing about the eclipse is that it isn't man-made, it's bloody natural. It must be even more significant somehow. For me personally, a lot of "issues" will be resolved on 11 August, because my star sign is Cancer, which means that whatever happens to the moon will probably happen to me. Or something like that.

I must admit that I have pored over drawings and read a lot about the eclipse but, as with the single currency or genetically modified crops, most of it, for astrological reasons, cannot be retained by my brain at all. At least I'm not alone. Most people, when push comes to shove, can't tell you whether the moon goes in front of the sun or the sun in front of the moon, though they can tell you in some detail how the eclipse had something to do with Princess Diana's death.

Oh, and by the way, it's, like, really important.

What we all want, though, what we are all really very keen on indeed, is the idea that we can "experience totality". God, we are gagging for totality. A partial eclipse is just not enough. We want to go all the way. Some people will travel thousands of miles for "totality". Others will spend a small fortune to go up in a private plane or be on Concorde during the eclipse.

What exactly is this totality? Darkness. Yes, and quietness, some say. All the birds will stop singing. It may even be like death. It may remind us of how insignificant we are. Of how big the sky is, the universe is. We need the eclipse, then, to make us feel small. If only for a few minutes.

What all the fuss about the eclipse demonstrates is what some of us have been saying for quite some time: that we do not live in a Christian country any more but a modern pagan one.

Organised religion has little to say about the eclipse beyond "behold God's work". So the eclipse lends itself to any new age mumbo-jumbo that you care to mention. It can simply mean whatever any of us wants it to mean: as a vacant sign of some sort of deep meaning, it is quite brilliant.

The last great pagan rite we had in this country - forget the debacle at Stonehenge - was Posh and Becks' wedding. For this is what it amounted to. Sitting on thrones, V and D, as I like to call them, had a pick 'n' mix ceremony made up of bits and pieces from various world religions. At times they looked like they were a Thai prince and princess, rather than OK! magazine's favourite couple.

V's and D's attitude - what I would describe as modern mainstream paganism - is the prevalent one in this country. Most people, when asked, say that they see spirituality as an entirely personal thing. It is about them and their private relationship with whatever they define as a force greater than themselves. They do not, they insist, need a church to worship in or centuries of dogma to get in the way of this relationship.

What this means in effect is that one can now consider oneself a spiritual or "in touch" or even religious person without any of the hard work. There is no sense that faith might require discipline, self-sacrifice, struggle or even having to accept anything that one finds difficult. Instead of organised religion, we have a culture of atomised individuals, each with his or her own personalised spirituality.

The eclipse is a godsend for such new agers; they will look to it for personal revelations. Yet while super-sensible types such as Richard Dawkins pooh-pooh such goings on, he at least must acknowledge that much of our scientific knowledge came from civilisations that would also have thought an eclipse immensely significant.

Dawkins wants us to celebrate the true magic of science, yet most of us will not view the eclipse in this way at all. Science, we will think, has given us all those diagrams - but nature has given us the real thing. What Dawkins fails to see about the new age attitudes is that they are intensely democratic. They may also be intensely arrogant: for they entitle the average person to talk as if they had years of spiritual training.

Yet I must admit that, though I refuse to be swept up in millennium hype, though I've promised to take my kids to that giant cervical cap in the Docklands, I'm afraid I am beginning to feel that to ignore the eclipse would be chancing it slightly.

Do I really want to miss out on the spiritual opportunity of a lifetime? No, I don't. Like everyone else, I want totality and I want it now. I want to know what it's like when the sun goes out. I want to say a few prayers to the gods.

But most of all I want everyone to know that, yes, I was there, staring at the sky, hoping to see the light.

The writer is a "Mail on Sunday" columnist

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!