Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Is there a religion for atheists?

Modern secular culture has no authority with the political or moral clout to impose a single vision.

Alain de Botton, probably the closest thing Britain has to a celebrity philosopher, has a Big Idea. Religion, he asserts, isn't "true", but its lack of truth is the least interesting thing about it. Instead of indulging in the dogmatic anti-theism associated with the likes of Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, why shouldn't atheists just "enjoy the best bits", as the publicity for his new book Religion For Atheists has it?

Many of us love Christmas carols, after all. Bach's cantatas are more profound and moving than anything written in the cause of atheism. Think of all those wonderful cathedrals, mosques and temples. Religion's power to transport the human spirit, to offer consolation and hope, to create a sense of belonging and inspire ethical conduct is undeniable even if you don't subscribe to the doctrines of a particular belief system. So let's work out precisely what gives religions their strength, "steal" it, bottle it and create a kind of transcendent secular humanism that will speak to people as deeply as religion does. Only without all that embarrassing dogma, not to mention the baggage of misogyny, homophobia, parochialism and intolerance with which most bona fide religions tend to come lumbered.

That seems to be de Botton's message, at any rate. He is struck by the hollowness of much modern culture, the unwillingness of today's education system, for example, to impart wisdom along with information. Secularism, he has said, "is full of holes. We have secularised badly." Among his projects is a "Temple of Perspective", a hollow a 46-metre high monolith in which pious non-believers will be able to contemplate the universe and the insignificant place they occupy within it. He wants to build it in the City of London, which to be fair probably could do with acquiring a sense of perspective.

De Botton's scheme, quixotic as it may be, is not without precedent. The 19th century French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, for example, tried to establish a "religion of humanity", complete with temples, a priesthood (male, married) a liturgy and a calendar in which days were devoted to great thinkers rather than to saints. The objects of worship were an alternative Trinity of humanity, the earth and destiny. Thomas Huxley described the system as "Catholicism minus Christianity."

It didn't work, needless to say, though Comte did have some followers and imitators, and there are still a few positivist churches in, of all places, Brazil. Most Brazilians, though, find their spiritual needs better catered to by Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Voodoo-style syncretic cults originating in Africa or some a combination of these. It's hard to imagine de Botton's scheme enjoying much more success than Comte's.

That religions have been stunningly successful vehicles of human culture is not in doubt, and de Botton offers some genuinely illuminating insights as to why. He notes that religious rituals are powerful because they involve the body as well as the mind, for example, and that religions are "cultures of repetition" grounded in calendars and relatively limited canons of scripture. They are, in a sense, finite universes: finite, because they concentrate on a small number of core teachings which may be elaborated but can never be wholly transcended, but universes because they are self-sustaining logical structures, perfectly adapted for maintaining themselves and neutralising awkward questions.

Modern secular culture is neither finite nor a universe. It is more comprehensive than any religion, but at the same time less complete, because it doesn't even pretend to have all the answers. Which is, of course, why Alain de Botton's idea could never work. We inhabit a culture that has become simply too big, too diverse, too self-critical. There is too much of it, and it is embraces too many contradictions. There's no single authority with either the political or moral clout to impose a single vision. It would also be necessary somehow to overcome the sceptical distance, the sense of irony, that characterises the secular viewpoint. Put simply, it's hard to imagine anyone, even Alain de Botton, taking the whole thing seriously enough.

Religions, like placebos, only work if you believe in them. From a sociological perspective, it's true, the inner content of the belief system doesn't seem to matter. Whatever their theology, the various world religions offer a broadly similar package of rituals, community cohesiveness, moral and ethical teaching, identity and spiritual sustenance. So it might seem that it might be possible to throw out the baby while keeping the bathwater (which, if your interest is in keeping clean rather than looking after a squalling and unpredictable infant, might seem like a good idea).

But from an insider's perspective, the beliefs really are central; the good things that de Botton admires are there to prop up the core beliefs. Even if you regard the doctrines of a particular religion as myths and metaphors that express profound truths of human experience, most of that religion's followers will actually believe them. This is a point too often missed by sympathetic analysts of religion, but which the "dogmatic atheists" ruthlessly (but accurately) home in on. Religions are particular and specific responses to general problems. Without that specificity they would be less dangerous, much less prone to dogmatism, prejudice and group-mindedness. But they would also lose many of those qualities that de Botton recognises and celebrates. People would stop believing in them.

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