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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.

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Fergus Pickering
May 31st, 2008
7:05 PM
The trouble is that the secular religion is so grindingly po-faced and dull. A religion really does have to be exciting. And where are the stories? And imagine a religion whose archpoet is Schiller for God's sake.

Cyril K
May 30th, 2008
1:05 PM
I always admire the way that you cut through to the core of the idea that you are wrestling with. This column is no exception. But I wonder if you have not stopped on the very last step of the staircase. I agree with you that whether God exists and whether religion is 'true' are non-issues. But that is a conclusion that one can reach from inside the structure of traditional religion as well as from outside it. Doing that leaves one in the advantageous position of not having to construct the whole structure from the gound up (poor old David -- he took on an impossible task). The idea that for something to be worthwhile it needs to be completely different from all that has gone before is (or should be) an outmoded 20th century one. Relax, Alain; join a traditional church, observe those disciplines that you can stomach and build on the scepticism of previous generations of intelligent men and women to develop the construct that is, as you say, a necessary and rather wonderful part of human civilisation. And if the jihadists and the bigots call you a hypocrite, reflect that you have been called worse things in your time. It is in any case a small price to pay for reaping the benefits that our relegious tradition has made available to us.

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