Do atheists need religion?

I wrote “Religion for Atheists” because I was deeply frustrated by the anger and intolerance of ‘new atheists’ like Richard … Continued

I wrote “Religion for Atheists” because I was deeply frustrated by the anger and intolerance of ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They are atheists, and so am I, but their brand of atheism seemed painfully aggressive and destructive.

Also, it focused to such an uncomfortable degree on the issue of whether God does or doesn’t exist. I think probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’. Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

Amy Sancetta

AP

A stained glass window glows, restored and then donated to the Museum of Divine Statues, is seen beyond a statue reclaimed from St. Propcop Church of Cleveland at the museum in Lakewood, Ohio on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011.

I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one concludes that he evidently doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the minuscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behavior can be overlooked.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I am simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought… My book is a guide to some of the things that a committed atheist (like myself) might want to steal and be inspired by in the faiths.

* * * * *

Below is an excerpt from “Religion for Atheists.”

1.

I was brought up in a commitedly atheistic household, as the son of two secular Jews who placed religious belief somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus. I recall my father reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive God might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight years old at the time. If any members of their social circle were discovered to harbor clandestine religious sentiments, my parents would start to regard them with the sort of pity more commonly reserved for those diagnosed with a degenerative disease and could from then on never be persuaded to take them seriously again.

Though I was powerfully swayed by my parents attitudes, by my mid-twenties, I underwent a crisis of faithlessness. My feelings of doubt had their origins in listening to Bach’s cantatas, they were further developed in the presence of certain Bellini Madonnas and they became overwhelming with an introduction to Zen architecture. However, it was not until my father had been dead for several years – and buried under a Hebrew headstone in a Jewish cemetery in Willesden, North London, because he had, intriguingly, omitted to make more secular arrangements – that I began to face up to the full scale of my ambivalence regarding the doctrinaire principles with which I had been inculcated in childhood.

I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content – a way, to put it in more abstract terms, to think about Fathers without upsetting my respectful memory of my own father. I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths.

Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with because they seem too closely associated with, to quote Nietzsche’s useful phrase, ‘the bad odors of religion’. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude. The notion of reading a self-help book has become absurd to the high-minded. We resist mental exercises. Strangers rarely sing together. We are presented with an unpleasant choice between either committing to peculiar concepts about immaterial deities or letting go entirely of a host of consoling, subtle or just charming rituals for which we struggle to find equivalents in secular society.

In giving up on so much, we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about re-appropriating for the secular realm. Early Christianity was itself highly adept at appropriating the good ideas of others, aggressively subsuming countless pagan practices which modern atheists now tend to avoid in the mistaken belief that they are indelibly Christian. The new faith took over celebrations of midwinter and repackaged them as Christmas. It absorbed the Epicurean ideal of living together in a philosophical community and turned it into what we now know as monasticism. And in the ruined cities of the old Roman empire, it blithely inserted itself into the empty shells of temples once devoted to pagan heroes and themes.

Religions have a habit of squatting on things which do not inherently belong to them: the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, Rome, built in the seventeenth century within the remains of the Roman temple of Antoninus and Faustina.

The challenge facing atheists is how to reverse the process of religious colonization: How to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them. For instance, much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which predate the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity. Many of our soul-related needs are ready to be freed of the particular tint given to them by religions – even if it is, paradoxically, the study of religions which often holds the key to their rediscovery and rearticulation.

What follows is an attempt to read the faiths, primarily Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism, in the hope of gleaning insights which might be of use within secular life, particularly in relation to the challenges of community and of mental and bodily suffering. The underlying thesis is not that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often secularized badly – inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have unnecessarily surrendered many of the most useful and attractive parts of the faiths.

2.

The strategy outlined in this book will, of course, annoy partisans on both sides of the debate. The religious will take offence at the brusque, selective and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. However, the downfall of many a faith has been its unreasonable insistence that adherents must eat everything on the plate. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the after-life? For someone devoid of religious belief, it may be no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favorite writers from across the canon. If mention here is made of only three of the world’s twenty-one large religions, it is no sign of favoritism or impatience, just the consequence of the way that the emphasis of this book lies on comparing religion with the secular realm rather than on comparing an array of religions with one another.

Atheists of the militant kind may also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha’s identity as a reincarnated rabbit – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.

To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerized by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.

3.

To conclude, this book does not endeavour to do justice to particular religions; they have their own apologists. It tries, instead, to examine aspects of religious life which contain concepts that could fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society. It attempts to burn off religions’ more dogmatic aspects in order to distill a few aspects of them that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet. It hopes to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.


Alain de Botton is a bestselling author, most recently of “Religion for Atheists.”

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