The (sadly now defunct) Ceylon Rationalist Society used to criticise the influence of religion in public life and expose what they called 'spiritual frauds' and other superstitions. They stood for the cause of reason in what they took to be an increasingly irrational society. They delighted in exposing hypocrisy and the volumes published by the Society are always interesting to read.
Things have got much worse since then and the need for the society is felt ever more keenly.
Anyway, it is all but impossible in society today to explain that one is an atheist. People are shocked, surprised and they look at one in a strange way. This is then followed by numerous questions on why, why, why don't you believe. When asked the question I either dodge or lie. Saves unnecessary questions. I imagine it would be like introducing someone as a lover or some other variant of the term.
My journey on the road to the damned was a long one. As a small boy I was told stories of Jesus and my love for the character was exceeded only by my love for my mother. I remember being deeply impressed by the selflessness, courage and goodness of the man. These were recurring themes in my young life: two other early hero's were Nelson and radio operator of the Titanic, Jack Phillips who went down with the ship, sending messages for help even as it sank.
In later years we were told that not everything in the bible was true. There were these illustrated books that we had at catechism classes that had black patches of varying sizes over the hearts of young sinners: small patches for small sins; larger ones for bigger sins. It had us rather worried so perhaps someone put us out of our misery but we were never quite sure for quite a while.
In later years, reading more on science and in my mid-teens writers like Asimov convinced me that there was no real god but I still went to church, mostly I think to please Granny. She was very devout and would go to church everyday, sometimes twice a day (my other grandmother was just as bad) and she would be very pained if we missed mass. my father never went and as children we found it boring and kept saying that we would stop going to church as soon as we grew up which made her very angry. If we missed mass we would be reminded at various times of the day that mass was on at 11am at the Jesuit Chapel, 12 at the Hospital Chapel and so forth until evening. She would then remind us on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday whenever she saw us but generally give up after that and contend herself with giving the culprit a black look or two if she caught sight of him.
Which is mostly why I remained a regular church-goer from my early-mid teens. It was easier than having to take the hassle, and in later years I realised it was probably one of the few things that kept her happy. Granny really was god and I stopped going after her death in 1993.
It was after I discovered the joys of singing (in 1998) that I began to go to church again, although a firm atheist by now my church going became very regular I rarely missed mass at all - because I loved to sing.
Naturally I make no mention of my beliefs to my companions and the few of them who are aware have generally come to assume that I have recanted, either way I don't bring up the subject.
My views on religion have however changed. God may not exist but his church certainly does which got me pondering as to how something so patently absurd could still exist in the light of all evidence against it.
I came to realise that religion can be experienced on many levels: spiritual, social/cultural and psychological. Look at the major events in life: birth, marriage, death: and religion appears for all except the most committed unbelievers. Religion has its uses: it can serve as a code of ethics and for social conduct (this is in my opinion its weakest link, for along with the positive lessons there are negatives as well but we can always concentrate on the positives and ignore the negatives); it adds a lot of colour, the ceremonies, symbols and the like and most importantly it can provide solace in grief.
Festivals like Christmas are purely cultural traditions that can be enjoyed by all. It is not even Christian, dating back to the Roman Saturnalia which in turn was based on ancient festivals of the winter solstice. It is instructive to remember that Brazil's famous Rio Carnival is actually religious in origin - its connected with the Lenten observances although I don't know precisely how. Now religion like that is something we can all enjoy.
The psychological aspects of religion are its most important . In times of stress or great grief, the rituals provide a ready made channel for overflowing emotions and the simple rubric of the prayers can offer a lot of comfort.
Religion therefore has a place in society (and its uses) although god (in his many manifestations) does not exist.
There must however be the distinction between religion as a purely personal belief , which has its place and religion in public life, in which it has no place.
No two people will approach religion in exactly the same way and while each must be allowed to do as he wishes (provided he does not cause a nuisance to others ) it is entirely unfair to impose the views of some on the entire population.
A state cannot believe and rulers should not assume that their personal beliefs can be taken to be those of the state as a whole.