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
Getty
Show Hide image

The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.