Interview: Ariane Sherine - Godless woman

With more than a quarter of Scots saying they do not follow any religion, Ariane Sherine should find plenty of like-minded people here who are interested in her guide to a Christmas without a God

• Ariane Sherine's agnostic bus advert captured the support of thousands of non-believers

WHEN Ariane Sherine, the founder of the Atheist Bus Campaign, conceived the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" she had little inkling it would end up so consuming her own. From a proposed 30 buses spreading the message around London, the project attracted enough donations for a fleet of 800 to roll out across the UK, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, and inspiring similar campaigns in 14 other countries.

A response to a poster prophesying "all eternity in torment in hell" for non-Christians, Sherine's adverts provoked fierce debate across the globe and prompted the Christian Party to decorate their own buses with "There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life". No means of transport has undergone such sustained theological scrutiny since a little donkey set off for Bethlehem.

Of course, Christmas still unites Christian, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Hindu and atheist in wonder – principally at the fact that decorations appear on supermarket shelves in October. For Sherine, though, preparations for this festive season began in the summer, as she set about persuading 42 philosophers, comedians, journalists and scientists to write The Atheist's Guide To Christmas, the very first atheist charity book, with all royalties going to the HIV and sexual health organisation, the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Featuring a PG Wodehouse pastiche from Richard Dawkins, Charlie Brooker ruminating on God's sense of humour and Simon Le Bon revealing a love of church music, the book advocates that Christmas retains its rituals of goodwill, love and feverish present unwrapping regardless of any theological underpinning. AC Grayling, Derren Brown, Claire Rayner, David Baddiel, Josie Long and Jenny Colgan and Professor Brian Cox, former keyboard player for D:Ream and now a scientist working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland are just some of the contributors.

There are tips on making your own decorations, tuning a radio to hear echoes of the Big Bang, and a chapter revealing how to turn your home into "something so bright it can be seen from space". Religion is chiefly left to abide by itself and, notwithstanding some sobering scientific analysis on the implications of misinformed medical ideas, tongues remain firmly lodged in cheeks.

"I'm not sure how welcome I'd be in a church at the moment," Sherine laughs when I ask her about the lingering guilt many atheists and agnostics feel at attending Midnight Mass for the sake of family unity. "I really love Christmas, not for any religious aspect, but because it's a time to share with my boyfriend and family. Although a lot of British people go to church to please granny, it's still a romantic ritual with lots of candles and sociable marking of the occasion."

Softly spoken but with firmly held convictions, she's a far less provocative figure than Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or any of the other "big beasts" of anti-religious writing. It has been claimed that organising atheists is akin to herding cats – this 29-year-old journalist, television writer and former stand-up comic has succeeded by employing canine-like cunning, exploiting her Secularist of the Year nomination to corner Dawkins, Dr Ben Goldacre and comedian Robin Ince at the awards ceremony, "with big, puppy dog eyes", pleading for them to contribute. Nevertheless, she believes she's still "too placid. I think a lot of atheists see me as too soft on religion. I'm not likely to make some big controversial statement or give them a great Pope-bashing quote!"

Alongside the British Humanist Association, Dawkins ardently backed the bus campaign, pledging 5,500 of his own money and allowing himself to be won round to the slogan's "probably" which, as in Carlsberg's marketing, ensured the adverts didn't breach advertising codes.

He and Sherine struck a deal that the follow-up campaign – which can currently be seen on billboards in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast – would depict Dawkins's concept: smiling children with the message, "Please don't label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself", across watermarks of "Mormon Child", "Protestant Child", "Atheist Child", "Catholic Child", "Muslim Child", "Anarchist Child" and others.

She concedes that it's a more controversial statement but argues: "It's not aimed at parents specifically, but the whole of society, raising awareness. Rather than saying, 'That's a Muslim child, that's a Christian child,' and not allowing them to choose their own identity, we should wait until they're old enough to choose for themselves." In an unfortunate twist, it emerged that the children featured on the poster, sourced from a stock photo, are from a devout Christian family, though that hardly negates the poster's point.

Sherine defends Dawkins against his "unfair" portrayal of stridency in the media, pointing out that "his making controversial statements are what get them interested. He's the world's most famous atheist and you need someone in every section of society, with every worldview, who is going to make some noise. Otherwise you're not going to be heard."

Raised as a churchgoing Christian by a non-practising Unitarian Universalist father and a Parsi Zoroastrian mother, with several Jehovah's Witnesses relatives thrown into the mix, Sherine likens her family background to the elaborate set-up for a joke. Alluding to an unspecified incident in 2005 that she's never publicly discussed and refrains from elaborating upon here, she recalls "beginning to feel more and more exasperated with religion and that I had to make a decision that a lot of religious people told me was wrong, prompting me to feel, 'Wow, you're not in my shoes, how can you tell me what to do?' Their morality seemed so arbitrary."

She remains appreciably dismayed at the growth in faith schools under the present government. "They're divisive and I would happily see them done away with," she says. "Britain would be a much more cohesive, happier and tolerant place if all races and backgrounds were allowed to grow up alongside each other and understand that we're all pretty much the same. Being half-Asian, half-white, I'm acutely conscious of the coverage of incidents of extremism on the one hand, racism on the other. But if you want this kind of conflict, perceived or otherwise, to be better (avoided] in the future, then rather than separating Asian kids into Muslim schools and white kids into Christian schools, we should mix everybody up and reduce the misconceptions."

According to the 2001 census, 65 per cent of Scots are nominally Christian, with just under 2 per cent practising other religions, 5.5 per cent opting not to reveal their beliefs – and 28 per cent regarding themselves as belonging to "no religion". That percentage is even higher among those under 50, with Scotland one of just six countries where humanist marriages are legal. "If the bus and billboard campaign has done anything, it's made it seem less impertinent to hold and voice atheist views," Sherine reflects. "Previously it was the preserve of bookshelves, but it's brought it into the pub a bit more and into people's living rooms." Anticipating promoting The Atheist's Guide To Christmas in Scotland this month, she enjoys the easy-going coming together of non-believers in an ill-defined but increasingly voluble movement.

She comments: "Especially in December, it's nice when it's glum outside to cheer people up, make them laugh, and to be with like-minded people, because that's what any group is about, really. We don't have churches or places of worship, we only have lecture theatres and pubs."

• Ariane Sherine will talk about the Atheist Bus Campaign for the Edinburgh Humanist Society at Edinburgh University on Friday, 7pm (the event is open to all) and to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub in the Junction Bar on Thursday, 17 December at 7:30pm. The Atheist's Guide To Christmas is out now (The Friday Project Ltd, priced 12.99).