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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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention (though it is reported that just 100 emails were checked).

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.