I am an atheist. But before you mentally conjure an image of a veritable Dawkins library on my book-shelf or skulk away muttering into the shadows if you’re religious, let me tell you that I’m a definite fan of belief. In my eyes, perhaps even more than in the eyes of most faith members, religion occupies an ideal situation at the altar of modern living. It is a place to find self-belief as well as faith in a deity, and that focus on individuality is crucial when we’re all being constantly undermined by cut-throat CV culture and generic but unachievable ‘perfection’ in the media.

I’ve found it perfectly possible to admire religion without subscribing to it, and that’s only been strengthened by discussions I’ve had with religious friends. ‘Tolerance’ is the wrong word, because it implies pinching your nose and trying to ignore a bad taste. Perhaps it’d be better to give a more positive lexical spin to good relations between theists and their less godly counterparts. The religion debate, like all iconic discussions, often arises because of the passionate views of its participants. While this kind of extremity seems to distill argument and encourages an interesting back-and-forth, the resulting tennis match can fail to encompass the whole court (and lead to considerable neck pain for those of us sitting too close).

One of the most frequently toted arguments for atheism, for example, is political and social tension arising from what are essentially extremist views within a religion. What this argument fails to recognise is that it is extremist in itself. Al-Qaeda is not an adequate representation of Islam as a whole, and to disagree with an entire institution on the grounds of one fundamentalist sect is to generalise to an acute degree. Although religion may be cited as a justification for acts of terrorism, it is important not to appropriate this entirely incomplete excuse, and to remember that roots of the problem can also be found in mentalities that simply cannot be attacked in the same way: nationalism, cultural difference and the awareness of historical tensions.

And herein lies the problem. While trying to embrace the grey-area complexities of the religious debate, I am finding it almost impossible to fight off the ideological demands of fundamentalism. It seems to have no place in the softly-spoken, intellectually curious arena of conversation which I often enjoy with a Catholic friend here in Cambridge, and although it is misguided to ignore such a crucial part of this world’s religious balance, it seems that normalcy is crying out to be represented, even as it watches the great blows of extremity fly to and fro overhead.

I would be an atheist unhappy with my own motivations if I couldn’t sit peacefully in a candlelit Cambridge evensong, enjoy a few snatched lines of John Donne’s poetry or admire the vibrant intricacies of a South Indian Hindu temple. Many of the true beauties in this world do arise from religion, and this is why I’ll always stand in the sometimes difficult and inexplicable position of an atheist in full support of faith. If an establishment can lead to happiness for the individual, and can, most importantly, provide some overarching awareness of what splendour there is in the human condition, I’m all for it. If we’d like to dispense with the damaging force of extremism altogether, perhaps we could start by agreeing that there may not, in fact, be a right answer to a debate which only gives room for one winner.