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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.