THAT’S us in the corner. That’s us in the spotlight. Losing our religion.

A secular lyric from an REM song about the obsession of human love can easily be made to fit a hymn to the lost tradition of a once great force in Scottish culture, art, literature and even sport. Scotland is losing its religion.

The atheist map of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shows there is a greater proportion of non-believers in Scotland than in any other area. More than one out of every three of us (36.7 per cent) does not believe in God, compared to one in 10 in Northern Ireland (10.1 per cent) and one in five in London (20.7 per cent)

Scotland, a nation once believed to be shaped, consumed and even riven by religion, is now the land where God might not be dead, but is heading towards the undertaker’s waiting room. So how did this happen? Can the trend be reversed? And is it a matter for regret or celebration?

The demise of God on our doorstep is particularly intriguing given Scotland’s history. A crucible of the Reformation, it is a nation that embraced Presbyterianism while Roman Catholicism endured despite persecution and then thrived in the wake of Irish immigration late in the 19th century. Jewish and Muslim immigrants have added to a vibrant religious mix, too.

So why has atheism increased?

Harry Reid, the author of The Soul of Scotland, an examination of Caledonian Christianity and its prospects, says: “Almost two generations ago, in the immediate post-war years, Christianity specifically had a strong grip.

But now that doesn’t exist. Perhaps the relatively dramatic scale of atheism in Scotland compared to other areas in Great Britain is a reaction against the excessive nature of religion here.”

He is invoking both the historic sectarianism that has prevailed in Scotland and the brand of Presbyterianism that was seen by some as grim and unforgiving.

Modern Scotland has certainly fallen out of love with church-going, as a glance at the empty pews in many Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic churches would attest. Successive generations were weaned on church-going, even forced into it, but this parental force has diminished significantly in the millennium. Religion was almost compulsory for many in Scotland, passed down by parents and policed by clergy, but this culture has passed forever for many. It still exists for some, but not for the majority.

The empty churches show organised religion is in spectacular decline in terms of numbers. So can this be reversed?

“Scotland has become largely secular,” says Reid, “and the strong figures for atheism are part of that. Any revival of Christianity is some way off, though I would love to see a resurgence of decent, civic religion.”

He says that part of the problem in declining religious affiliation is a lack of leadership at the top of Scotland’s leading denominations. “There will be divided opinion about Tom Winning,” he says of the Roman Catholic cardinal who died in 2001. “But he was a leader who had an influence not only with politicians but with a significant part of the nation. He stood for certain values and was thus a sort of example of religion in words and action.”

Reid sees no-one of that scale in the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and believes the organisation of the Church of Scotland mitigates against any strong, enduring leadership.

He says: “The Presbyterian church has this absurd idea that it must have a new moderator each year. This has obvious failings because there are simply not enough good candidates and when they do get an outstanding one then he or she is banished before people can get used to them as a leader.”

But if the established religions have contributed to their demise, there are stronger forces at work. Atheism has been promoted by powerful, articulate advocates such as Richard Dawkins,

AC Grayling and Peter Hitchens. Their message has chimed with many who have dismissed God as a childish construct and/or a force that leads to wars and eternal strife.

This atheism, described as militant, has in its certainty the echo of the most crude sort of Christian evangelism or fundamental Islamism in that it leaves no room for doubt. Atheism means “no god”.

Thus, 36.7 per cent of Scots are sure of their stance. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the other 63.3 per cent are both God-fearing and God-believing.

The demise of religion and the rise of atheism has left room for a growing breed in Scotland and beyond. There are those – many of whom are still comfortable within organised denominations – whose belief systems evolve through prayer, meditation or experience.

Faith is never certainty. There are those who hold a belief in God that fluctuates and changes, sometimes dramatically. The rise in atheism still leaves them in the majority.

But the most significant move in religious terms in the modern Scotland has been the rise in humanism, described by Richard Holloway, the former Episcopal bishop, as religion without the supernatural. One can have a humanist naming ceremony, a humanist wedding and a humanist funeral. The staging posts of life no longer require church intervention.

In his A Little History of Religion, Holloway points out that although religion is in decline in many places “it is still the biggest show on Earth”, it faces a fight for survival in Scotland. The old church certainties have gone in terms of adherence and attendance.

But is this bad for the nation or even deleterious to the theory of God?

The trite answer, of course, is that if God exists then a nation’s lack of belief in He/She/It is the most moot of points. The most pertinent enquiry, however, is how a lack of belief impacts on the individual and the community.

The oft-stated fear is that a demise in organised religion diminishes the excellent services in care, consolation and help that organised religion can bring to the poor, the bereaved and the infirm. But it would be an awful blasphemy to suggest that an atheistic culture could not and would not fill that gap.

The move towards atheism might just be part of a larger revolution in thought that has affected believers.

It is this: people are less likely now to take unbending diktats on what to believe and how to follow any faith.

This may be seen as a late 20th century or 21st century development but it is very Scottish in nature. It was, after all, a theme of the Enlightenment that had Edinburgh as it crucible and such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Joseph Black and Thomas Reid as its high priests.

It was, too, at the heart of the teaching of Martin Luther, the preacher who launched a Reformation that was so convulsive to and influential on modern Scotland. He believed that one should study the Bible and work matters out for oneself. He was strident against the over-weening influence of any church, any hierarchy. The path to self-realisation is thus signposted in similar lettering by both Luther and Hume. In modern parlance, one was a fervent believer and the other a perceived atheist. Yet both agree on the individual’s right, even need, to find or deny his or her own God.

This is the decision that faces all of us. The unsettling notion for militant atheist or strident believer is that all of us share everything whether we pray to God or have a scepticism about the supernatural. Or both.

This, then, is a nation divided under one God. Or split under none. This is a nation of personal choices where believer, non-believer and sceptic has the right to order their own spiritual lives without coercion.

There is reason to be content with this co-existence, whether one thanks God for it or believes it to be a step in the march towards an atheistic modernity.