Lindsey Hilsum speaks up for the faithless

The God-free are becoming an oppressed minority. With the abolition of our own circle of hell, we ha

On my return from the Islamic Republic of Iran I discovered that, in my absence, the Pope had abolished limbo. Unsurprisingly, this had not made headlines in Tehran, where the people are having their own arcane religious debates.

Limbo, according to Dante, was the seventh circle of hell, repository for unbaptised babies and "virtuous pagans" - those such as Homer, Ovid and Horace who led great lives but, unfortunately, were never exposed to Christ's teachings on account of living several centuries too early. (www.askthepope.blogspot.com suggests that musicians who have had only one hit song should be admitted, too, but came up with the idea after limbo was consigned to - well, heaven or hell, I suppose.) Unlike the inner

circles, reserved for politicians, estate agents, mass murderers, and so on, limbo had no torments of fire and brimstone, but was officially Sad.

I realise that I could not in all honesty claim never to have heard the message of the gospel, despite having wriggled out of divinity classes with Miss Benson on the grounds that I was "a bit Jewish". None the less, I had nurtured the hope that I might blag my way into limbo as a "virtuous pagan". Now Pope Benedict has done away with the whole thing, declaring it to be merely "a theological hypothesis". (Unlike the rest of Catholic teaching, which is presumably not a hypothesis but known and proven.)

Paganism has an honourable tradition in Britain, being the original religion of these isles. Wrongly confused with devil-worshippers, pagans venerate goddesses and ancestral deities. Primarily, they worship nature, being the first and most fervent environmentalists. These days you can have a pagan wedding in Scotland, and there are even pagan prison chaplains. I therefore risk offending the Pagan Federation (www.paganfed.org) by co-opting the term "virtuous pagan" to denote non-believers. Historically, very few people have eschewed religion - those who fight the faith into which they are born tend to start a new one, join someone else's or get

burned at the stake. Yet, for a brief moment in the 20th century,

when I was growing up, the faithless - or maybe faith-free, to put it more positively - thought they were in the ascendant.

I was raised by parents who deluded themselves that their way of thinking was the wave of the future. My mother, an atheist, would explode in anger whenever anyone used the word "Christian" to denote "good", arguing that some of the worst people she knew were Christians (I name no names, but you know who you are). My father, an agnostic because science hasn't proved if God exists one way or another and he only believes what can be empirically proven, was confident that religion would wilt away as people became more rational.

How wrong he was. Now we have an American president who allegedly believes that God told him to invade Iraq, and an Iranian president who thinks his country's policies should be tailored to preparing for the return of the Mahdi, the Shia Muslims' 12th Imam, who disappeared in 941. In Israel, the ultra-religious grow ever more powerful and, all over the Muslim world, secular governments struggle to contain those who call for a fundamentalist form of political Islam.

What do we have to counter this? Polly Toynbee on a one-woman crusade (yes, I know what the word means) against the marketing of Disney's version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a Christian parable, and me rushing to silence Radio 4's Thought for the Day each morning.

Secularists still dominate European politics - witness Alastair Campbell's "We don't do God". The European Parliament rejected the arch-Catholic Rocco Buttiglione as commissioner for justice, freedom and security, fearing the Church's views on homosexuality and the role of women would influence his decisions. Yet it's hard to see how this attitude can prevail, as believers of different faiths work to insert their ideas into politics. Governments need to acknowledge that many Muslims see European society as decadent, but there seems to be no strategy to resist the idea that godlessness is the problem.

The tide of history is not turning towards humanism; quite the reverse. As the Church of England declines, people go for crystals or Buddhism or transcendental meditation. In modern society, to say you are not "spiritual" is to suggest that you are materialistic and shallow, with no appreciation of finer or more complex feelings. To reject all this is seen as admitting an inability to discern a greater meaning to the universe, rather than genuinely believing that there isn't one.

I am not promoting the kind of smug secularism that disdained all those who felt insulted by The Satanic Verses, nor the evangelising humanism which thinks that everyone should discard their faith in the interests of modernity. I am just concerned that the God-free will soon be an oppressed minority. With the abolition of our own circle of hell, we have nowhere to go. So I suggest that we recreate limbo here on earth. If we're in charge, then we - not the Pope - can decide who is eligible, setting the bar just high enough to let the dancers slip in underneath.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.