ATHEISTS and agnostics are decent people whose tormented souls will burn for all eternity in the scorching fires of hell, Britain's biggest catholic said last night.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor said non-believers should be respected, right up to the point of death when they will finally come face to face with Satan and his blood-soaked pitchfork.
He told a conference in London: "Those without faith should not be shunned or abused. Jesus and Beelzebub are already cooking something up for them, don't you worry about that."
The leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales stressed that a 'hidden God' was active in everyone's life, often nipping to the shops for them or wiping down their kitchen surfaces.
Stressing that God was not in the phonebook, the Cardinal said: "You can't just ring him up. You have to get an appointment and that can take up to 18 months.
"I suppose I could try to put in a good word for you… if only I wasn't so skint – if you catch my drift…"
He admitted talking about God was difficult, especially as some people genuinely believe a man was born of a virgin, performed miracles and then died and came back to life, while others believe that is a lot of insane, voodoo rubbish.
He added: "We must not allow Britain to become devoid of religious faith, otherwise how will I afford new hats?"
The Cardinal's lecture follows clashes over stem cell research and gay rights, where the church tried to impose laws based on a 2000 year-old book written by people who stoned each other to death for wearing the wrong clothes.