You are here:   Faith > A Religion for Atheists

The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. It’s a measure of the banality of recent discussions on theological matters that it is precisely this matter which has hogged the limelight, pitting a hardcore group of fanatical believers against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

We’d be wiser to start with the common-sense observation that, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. There is naturally no holy ghost, spirit, Geist or divine emanation. Dissenters from this line can comfortably stop reading here, but for the rest of us the subject is henceforth far from closed. The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up. We can recognise that the needs which led people to do so must still in some way be active, albeit dormant, in modern secular man. God may be dead, but the bit of us that made God continues to stir.

It was our 18th-century forebears who, wiser than us in this regard, early on in the period which led to “the death of God” began to consider what human beings would miss out on once religion faded away. They recognised that religion was not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns that touched on architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time — and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time. So the more fanciful and imaginative of thinkers began to do two things: firstly, they started comparing the world’s religions with a view to arriving at certain insights that transcended time and place, and secondly, they began to imagine what a religion might look like if it didn’t have a god in it.

View Full Article
John Thomas
November 14th, 2008
1:11 PM
One comes across this silly "Truth doesn't matter - we all need to fabricate something like religion to get us through" from time to time; the foolish thinking of 'relgion as some kind of medicine or drug'. The nub lies in a simple question: If this life/world is all there is, is there any point to any of it - wouldn't suicide be the best (and certainly the most rational, reasonable)choice? This present life can never be an end in itself, to try to think of it as such is the masochism of the feeble-minded, to try to make it such is to usher in barbarism, amoralism - and finally pure hedonism ("Eat, drink, and be merry because ..."). Realise this, and then ultimate, objective, truth - reality -becomes all that matters.

June 10th, 2008
12:06 PM
Interestingly enough, he diverges from the Straussians only in what he finds interesting, not in what he finds true. If the basic Straussian (Strauss: I am not a Straussian) position is that religion is untrue but useful for creating ethical behavior, with only a few in a position to understand this and thus pull the strings, then the Bottonist (de Botton: I am not a Botanist!) position simply expands that group of guardians to the point where it encompasses who can get the second paragraph of this article. However, to facilitate dialogue on the religious impulse, we don't need religion: we need history of, anthropology of, etc., religion. Christians and Muslims can find Lao Tzu or the Bhagavad poet intriguing without needing to accept them; the masquerade becomes quite confusing if you accidentally get born in Colorado Springs or Manchester and get the indoc from before you can remember.

June 9th, 2008
9:06 AM
Dear Alain, Why don`t you just join the Anglican Church? No-one there will really mind if you don`t believe in God, and their splendid architecture is more that enough compensation for the odd, dreary sermon. F.

June 7th, 2008
5:06 AM
I'm a recent discoverer of Standpoint and I'm enthused that there's some thinking and debate going on within its auspices on subjects that are of concern to a ticked-off baby-boomer like me.I largely concurred with Alain De Botton's piece and Robert Callow's comments are spot on.Many thanks..

Robert Callow
June 5th, 2008
8:06 PM
Alain, The pride that enables a man to value himself above others, also allows him to regard those others with disrespect, even contempt. Once this happens it becomes easy for him to cheat and lie to whoever he regards as less important or inferior to himself. Such a state of mind that values itself above others also allows a man to easily dismiss the true word of others as unimportant or untrue when their statements are seen to be in conflict with his own self first desires. Likewise, the half-truths and lies of others to such a man can easily be welcomed as absolute truth when they feed and protect his feeling of superiority and pleasure. It thus becomes increasingly more easy for him to ignore or deny the truth when he senses the truth is in conflict with his self-centered desires to be fulfilled: For as much as these desires become his needs so also will his cravings for more leave him more vulnerable and subject to the corruption of those most crafty and evil. Their lies will become more easily accepted by him as truth and shall be woven into the memory of his mind which is already living by lies and corruption; and from such a memory his deductions, decisions and judgements shall be made. What is being reasoned and perceived as reality to the mind corrupted by pride then is all too often an illusion. This state of mind that is the inherited scourge of all men breeds contempt and hatred for the truth along with paranoia, conflict and everlasting destruction, as history will testify. And yet there is a cure for anyone who desires or needs a cure, where faith in simple logic and reason leads to an easy understanding of the meaning of the Spirit of truth. When this happens a deeper trusting in this Spirit will start to grow. A greater trusting will lead to a greater respect for all that this Spirit is and speaks. Ultimately, the only way of surviving deluded man's rapidly increasing knowledge and power to completely destroy himself becomes obvious. For each negative query there is a positive answer, "seek and you will find". Freedom is the freedom to choose.

June 3rd, 2008
9:06 AM
Your buildings-based religion is unlikely to capture many hearts other than those of architects. Existing religions stir the passions largely by promising extravagent rewards for "faith". By contrast, ethical living is its own reward. I strongly agree that a pessimistic attitude is a proper response to evolution and human history - this is an insight missing from most "humanistic" creeds.

June 3rd, 2008
4:06 AM
As a secularist I'm irked by Mr. de Botton's need or desire to wrap atheism in the cloak of religion. For centuries man has been in context through art, architecture, literature, music, landscape, etc. without necessarily needing religion. Nature itself has been a great inspiration for all of the above, but other venerated monuments, such as the Lincoln Memorial and similar, have been inspired by ideals, some nearly universal. Frederick Law Olmsted's design of Central Park in New York was inspired by his love of nature and wanting to provide a public park for socially conscious reasons. Religion has no special corner on art, architecture, literature, etc. and I don't see the need for atheists to create a religion or churches when there is no one thing to be worshipped. You have a bleak view of modern art today if you can only say that "surprise and shock" are the two foremost emotions expressed. Have you visited many museums? There is much that offers new ways of seeing and understanding, again, often reflecting the culture of its day. My art history books only contain the great works of art, not all the poorly executed works that were discarded. Yesterday's common pastoral scene is today's blue circle. As far as awe, who are you speaking for? Who is the "we"? We feel awe not merely by gadgetry, but the knowledge and understanding of our world that it brings. We are humble in our outlook because we realize our small part in the universe; this is not discomforting because we appreciate the ability to recognize this. Yeah for us humans. The religious wrestle with the same emotions; if their repository is belief in a transcendant deity, then I would argue that it is a self-referential aspect of the human mind. The 'truth' of religion is important in that one must ask how a person arrives at that 'truth'. People have different answers. It IS interesting that religion continues to be a significant aspect of humans' minds as well as many beliefs and myths that have no basis in observed reality. It is also interesting that humans for centuries have not adhered to religion as well. But secularists don't need the trappings of religion such as cathedrals and churches because, 1) we can commune in other ways and don't need to call it a church (restaurant would be fine), and 2)atheism is not a religion. The cathedrals are beautiful buildings and feats of engineering that also explain the culture. That they were inspired by a desire to glorify the divine, does not detract nor add to their beauty. Been there, done great cathedrals are being built anymore. There are newer buildings that make us feel small - do you need one infused with religiousity to *feel* anything? Ironically, those cathedrals took over a 100 years to build and shortened many lives by grounded stone dust, which is thankfully not a problem anymore. Relativising? I hope you're being figurative about a network of secular churches, if not I suggest this: if you want a high place to escape the hubbub of modern society, go climb a mountain, soar in a plane above the clouds, look through a telescope at an observatory. Engage with the world around you and it will feed a sense of humility and wonder that there is much more than ourselves. Join a hiking tour, sail a boat. Then write about it or sing about it, as many others have done for years. Otherwise, maybe Cyril is right, and you ought to join a traditional church. Your article sounds confused as if you are grappling with a need for spirituality but are not sure how to obtain it. You seem to think non-believers should express themselves as religionists do in a way that religionists would recognize. When a painting or building is not about religion, that's it. When astronaut Al Bean paints a depiction of a man on the moon, it is telling a story as much as The Last Supper. It so happens that it's not a fable or myth, but certainly conveys the good of man. Perhaps you'd like to clarify your article because it appears you haven't expressed yourself very well to a secular audience.

June 3rd, 2008
3:06 AM
Actually, Jacques-Louis David's idea did find traction, Robespierre called it "The Cult of the Supreme Being", and it should serve as a warning to any would-be secular humanists who think their idea would gain any root in the minds of men. You don't grasp religion or its institutions and you never will, better to keep the fields of reason and piousness separate, but equal.

June 2nd, 2008
4:06 PM
It seems to me that a pessimistic secular religion already exists: environmentalism. It has all the ingredients from original sin (man destroyed the animals and poisoned everything) to secular saints (Al Gore) to the coming apocalypse (global warming). There are many gardens and buildings explicitly designed by its tenets. The Eden Project, for example. And just about every other building, garden and school lesson plan is influenced by it.

Anthony Price
June 2nd, 2008
11:06 AM
This is the most interesting thing that i have read in some time. My attention was drawn to the existence of Standpoint by a very derogatory article in today's Independent - to arouse such ire, you must be doing something right.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.