Vinoth Ramachandra

Religion for Atheists

Posted on: July 23, 2011

The popular philosopher Alain de Botton gave a lecture at a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Edinburgh on what atheists need to learn from religion.  In the Blog of the science journal Nature, Philip Campbell reports on what was said. “Of course there is no God!”, announced de Botton, “But let’s move on – that’s only the beginning. We need atheism 2.0, and for that we need to draw from religion.”

Campbell summarizes de Botton’s talk thus:

“Universities turf you out into the world, as if you need no help. In contrast, all major religions see us humans as only just holding it together. The greatest preacher of all was John Wesley, who emphasised above all, in that spirit, the duty of parenthood. And we need those sermons too – not just lectures full of information, but talks that aim to change our lives. What is more, religions say you need to hear a lesson not once but ten times a day – theirs is a culture of repetition. All religions have calendars in which, for example on a Saints Day, you encounter a particular Good Life or Worthy Thought on an annual basis… And in the modern secular world, people interested in the spirit tend to be isolated, whereas religions provide institutions of spiritual togetherness.

Somehow, said de Botton, those who don’t believe in a deity nevertheless need to find ways of incorporating activities that promote spiritual well-being – however we may choose to define ‘spiritual’ – into the structures of our professional or social lives. The religions, he argued, are the foremost example of institutions fighting for our minds. You may not believe in religions, he said, but they’re so subtle and clever that they’re not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone. They’re for all of us.”

De Botton is an engaging writer, whose several books bringing philosophy to bear on topics of everyday life (love, anxiety, travel, happiness) serve as a challenge to those Christian theologians whose work is nothing more than commentary on other theologians. But the latter could well pose a counter-challenge to de Botton. How does a philosopher (of all people) simply assert, without argument, that atheism is true; and then  assert, without evidence, that all religions are essentially the same and, further, that it is religious rituals rather than beliefs that matter to peoples’ well-being?

What is equally puzzling is that de Botton must surely be aware of his own nation’s history.  Immediately after the French Revolution, the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) inaugurated what he termed “A Religion of Mankind.” This was a secularized religion dedicated to the glory of the new French Republic with the full panoply of neo-pagan shrines, temples, feast days, new calendars, wedding ceremonies, the veneration of saints (such as Voltaire, Rousseau and other heroes of the revolution) and their relics, and propaganda techniques learned from their religious foes.

David’s Religion of Mankind was short-lived. However, it was taken up by another Frenchman, August Comte, the founder of positivist sociology, and later by the circle of naturalists who gathered around T.H. Huxley. Comte sought to establish a “scientific-humanist” Church and, ironically, it was not in Paris but in Calcutta that he found his most ardent followers, among the Bengali intelligentsia. Calcutta witnessed the first community of Comte’s Religion of Humanity with its paraphernalia of rituals oriented around humans rather than gods. The group around Huxley in Britain, which included Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, organized themselves into a Church Scientific, with the avowed intent of attacking and undermining the credibility of the Church of England.

The Church Scientific organized lay “sermons” on scientific subjects, dressed in gowns imitative of the clergy, set up Sunday Lecture Societies to compete with the Church of England Sunday schools, sang hymns to Nature at mass meetings, and distributed pamphlets and tracts which proclaimed scientific naturalism and denounced Christianity as the chief obstacle to scientific progress. Even buildings set up as monuments to science, such as the Natural History Museum in London, were designed as secular cathedrals. A whole new “history” of science was written, regarded today as utterly worthless, to show that science and religion had always been bitter enemies, with Mother Nature replacing God, and Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin assuming a heroic status as the knight-saints of the modern world. Thus a new mythology was created.

Furthermore, religious atheism was vigorously promoted in all the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. It is still the state religion of China and North Korea. The repetitious propaganda/sermonizing and “spiritual togetherness” that de Botton encourages British atheists to cultivate flourished in the Nuremberg rallies of the Hitler Youth, the incessant revolutionary parades of East Germany and Soviet Russia, and Chairman Mao’s cultural revolutionaries who fervently memorized and disseminated his Little Red Book.

We have been there, Alain, done that- and the results have been disastrous. A “spirituality” without truth can be as oppressive as unity without justice. When religions are emptied of gods, other gods take over. And the god of the state is prominent among them.

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8 Responses to "Religion for Atheists"

Thanks for this Vinoth,

Undoubtedly nothing infuriates the current crop of atheist intelligensia as the apparently straightforward connection between atheist dogma and the excesses of China, CCCP, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and perhaps NAZI Germany.

I was at a lecture in Dublin earlier this year where Daniel Dennett spoke. The tickets were over €40 each. (I don’t think there are many Christian thinkers with the chutzpah to charge to hear them preach!) He advocated a very similar approach to de Botton, even going so far as to suggest buying abandoned church buildings for the purposes of this atheistic soul-building exercise. He lost even his own audience when he forced us to listen to two atheistic “Gospel songs” that his friend had composed and recorded. Not just was it an embarrassing parody of one of the most vibrant forms of music developed in the modern era, it was astonishingly transparent as an attempt at mythology- songs about worshipping the illumination of reason are even insufficient as ritual and liturgy, nevermind formation in the sense both Dennet and de Botton realise is necessary.

The reception of Dennett’s proposal to meet for edification as a group on Sunday mornings was summed up nicely by one man on the way out, “Sure, having a lie-in on a Sunday is the point of being an Atheist!”

Interesting entry, Vinoth.

After some initial resistance to the idea, I’ve come to accept the reality that “New Atheism” is not a self-perpetuating end within itself. No doubt the internet has given atheism a lasting appeal insofar as affords communities room to grow. But surely after the thrill of casting off “superstition” and embracing “rationality” (which often means arguing with theists on forums) wears off there is no defined path to take? One can be as easily be a Secular Humanist as a communist.

I wonder if New Atheism has spent so much time and energy shouting and raging against religion (assuming in the process that all religion are the same!) that it forgot to develop alternatives. It’s interesting to read more enlightened people from both inside atheism (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/21/beyond-new-atheism) and from outside it (http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/believe-it-or-not) ask “what’s next?”.

Some of the alternatives being suggested by the likes of Dennett are often brazenly parasitic on religious rituals – and often without without a trace of irony. Yet it is surely all emptiness. The veneration of abstract ideas like science and rationality is surely reserved for the elite. And how long before they become bored of an essentially hollow ritual? As Peggy Lee once asked “Is that all there Is?” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BjhJLhSbYg&feature=related)

Interesting article and I can really say you’ve done a great job… I wasn’t sure where it was going in a few places but you wrapped it up nicely. I think that they replace God with humans, that’s all. It should be noted that the Church Scientific tried to mimic the structure of the church but it really doesn’t make any sense without God. Granted there are some traditions that tend to get in the way of the message of Christ, as we always try to turn God’s word into a step letter towards eternal life. But, that’s beside the point I guess.

I cannot help but recall Paul when he said that if Christ is not crucified and resurrected then the faith is all in vain. It’s all of it or none of it and I cannot see why people would choose to benefit from mere religion.

It really does go the way of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il if it is just religion for the sake of unity. They took religion and made it selfish, which is one thing that I like about the Christian creed. It’s fundamentally not about the individual.

Great post–I might have been a bit scatterbrained so I hope I make sense.

Dear Vinoth, thanks again for this great post!

Could you cite a book or two where from one can read about the connection of Nazis youth with atheistic ideology? I have encountered atheists who deny and rather get really angry when atheism and Nazism is connected. They even say that Hitler, at least, used to be a Christian. And I think it is true that even his marriage, just before his death, was solemnised by a Christian minister.

Alain de Botton is Swiss, not French.

Jeremiah, it is not so much the individual beliefs of leaders that matters as the reigning ideology/belief-system of the culture. Nazi ideology elevated the German nation (volk) to the place of supreme value. Absolute loyalty to the nation, represented by the Fuhrer, replaced belief in any personal deity. Interestingly, it resembled the Roman empire under various emperors- and, ironically, it was the early Christians who were labelled “atheists” for refusing to join the emperor cult.

Books on Nazi fascism are legion. The historian Michael Burleigh is a good place to start.

Vinoth, very intriguing – to be reminded that the roots of social science go back to the French Revolution and the overthrow of the Church’s role in society. To neglect this history means we are unable to understand some of the limits of the social sciences. But also, we are unable to understand some of the problems that Comte and co. quickly saw, among them the positive role that religion had played in morals, values, and social solidarity, and the need for them to replace the religious rituals and traditions with something equally meaningful.

If I may offer one criticism, I would want to remind us all that the “god of the state” is not the only one that moves in when God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is removed. True, the “god of the state” has been a very visible and deadly one in the past century in Germany, the former Soviet Union, China, North Korea, et al.

However, in the democratic countries, other “gods” have moved in as well, both for non-Christians and those who speak of themselves as Christians – the “god of the self”, the “god of sport”, the “god of science and technology”, the “god of celebrity”, the “god of my personal salvation”, to name only a few. None of these “gods” have visible dictators, so they are more difficult to see.

But all of them lead to a similar situation, failure to honor God in Jesus Christ with deeds, not just words. “41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’…..” Matthew 25

John, thanks for your comments. I agree with you about non-state deities in liberal democracies and have written about them in earlier posts. indeed, my first book was entitled Gods that Fail and my last book expanded on this theme (Subverting Global Myths, IVPAcademic, 2008).

Terry Halliday has told me about you and I admire what you are doing with the Redemption of Reason seminars.

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