Religion for Atheists

British public thinker Alain de Botton’s most recent book, Religion for Atheists, is one that has pointed to a key element missing in our society that we need to get back.

That something is a community of fellow-travellers through life.

It’s de Botton’s view that our religions used to do this for us.

Of course, for people who are part of faith communities to this day, they still do.

But for a great number of us, joining a faith community in mimicry of belief isn’t an option.

We no longer think of the faith of our forefathers (or any other one, for that matter) as an obvious truth. We think of it as something that needs to be shown to be true. Otherwise, it’s just a myth, as Nietzsche noted in The Gay Science:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Going out into the world — emigration and the mixing of cultures — and having the world come to us — immigration and the mixing of cultures — coupled with centuries of European religious community resistance to the findings of scientists, shattered the notion of “things given”.

When our cultures were far more homogeneous, it was also easier to believe. When they are heterogeneous as they are now, or as going out into the world and bringing back news made it even in the 19th century, one quickly realises that if one does believe in “faith A”, then one does not believe in “faith B”, “faith C”, etc. In other words, the possibility of disbelief is made real and palpable.

It is a short step from there to allowing belief in “faith A” to atrophy, first in practice, then in being front-of-mind, then to being in mind at all.

The rise of liberalism (in its small-l form) contributed to: embedded in liberalism is the idea of human malleability. We can remake ourselves and our world. We can move toward perfection on our own.

Hence, “we must become as gods ourselves” … and once that thought passes by, the thought of subservience fades into history.

Blaise Pascal thought he’d seen the answer to this, way back in the 17th century:

“Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”

Many, of course, can do that. Many — an increasing number — cannot.

They take words and symbols seriously.

They cannot be “cafeteria Catholics”, or “High Holiday Jews”, or any other sort of fair-weather friends to their faith communities, squaring their disbelief, lack of subservience and failures of practice by picking and choosing the elements they want while discarding the rest.

So they take the harder road, and acknowledge the difficult pain of separation.

Still, as de Botton wants to tell us, we need what we used to get from religion.

A group of people around us who both knew we were here, and knew when we needed help, and gave it.

A group, in turn, that we could do likewise toward.

Repetition of lessons. As de Botton says, the notion of higher education — I can tell you this one time in a lecture and you’ll both learn it and keep it with you, ready to use, for the rest of your life — is hogwash.

We humans need to be reminded, again and again.

Don’t believe me? Have you ever noticed how a book you love can be reread again and again and each time you find something new in it?

Even though you know every single word by heart?

Presentation of beauty. Few if any faiths would communicate themselves in ways so abstract, so subjective, that the vast majority see, hear and understand nothing.

In other words, they use art to make their story arcs, their messages, objective and concrete.

Consider, as de Botton says, the museum or art gallery.

This hall contains all English painters from 1600-1700. That one, all Dutch painters 1600-1700. The next one, all English painters 1700-1800.

Consider an old European church. This wall contains the story of the Passion of the Christ. That Mary suffering was carved in the 1400s, this painting in the niche done in 1650, this plaque in the Victorian era, and so on. The stained glass spans centuries, with different windows done at different times. Collectively the story is told.

Much of our society today, for all its wealth and inheritance, is given to us in fragments.

Few have the time, the energy, the discipline to study enough to pull it together.

(And, of course, much of modernity and post-modernity is the realm of the “stunt”, the “statement”, the “effect”. Picasso’s cubism tries to show us how to see the “other side” from our stance. Kandinsky tries to use colours and shapes to awaken us to music, the breeze, that which cannot be painted. Mies van der Rohe’s black modern towers warn us of the heartlessness of financial capitalism, the TD Centre building as stripped of any consideration other than function as finance strips assets for no better reason than it can. The replication of the building in Minneapolis reminds us that everywhere is nowhere. But much of it is pure dreck and showmanship for the sake of the artist’s pleasure and the creation of a class of people who “think they know” separate from the masses who know they don’t want to.)

Perhaps you think that the world of your old age, and your grandchildren’s maturity, will be ever more of what Thomas Friedman wrote about in The World is Flat — or Thomas Langan wrote about with the HTX, that global nodal nexal network overlaid on societies. More globalised, more levelled out, more so.

Perhaps you think that the world that’s coming will be a dismal place of weather violence, climatic shifts, mass migrations, and the end of the industrial world with a turn back to animal and human power and nothing else. The crash scenarios.

Perhaps you think we can transition successfully from this time to the next, some relocalising but not losing the world in the process, the eco-technic future where our path is managed forward into sustainability. Sometimes these are more like now than others.

Perhaps you think Götterdammerung awaits, some “clash of civilisations”, some final jihad against the Dar-al-harb, some lashing out like trapped animals determined to will nothing if they are no longer able to will freely.

Perhaps you think we’ll just muddle through.

In all these cases, we do need communities.

In a global, flat world, we need “new families” to care for each other as natural family members move in search of opportunity, or as a requirement of working.

(In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re an aging world in ever-increasing measure these days.)

In the disaster scenarios, we’ll need each other to pick up the pieces. The survivalist meme of retreating to a redoubt is a myth — the few that could do it successfully (and, as always, some could) make the point that the many cannot. (Even they need more than a hermit’s existence.)

Transition — under whatever rubric — starts with community building. Enough said.

Even if you think, as did a group undertaking a “Future Backwards” exercise on a training course I attended in 2008, that “global thermonuclear war” was our inevitable future, we do not want to face it alone.

So de Botton’s call to find a way to return what faith communities gave us to our lives is quite meaningful indeed.

A reason to gather regularly. Ritual and routine to give our weeks pause, and our days measure. Art in all its forms: the visual, the auditory, the performance. Repetition of key learnings and lessons. A cycle to follow to mark the days. People to share with and receive from.

He calls for using some of these principles to reform our education (which desperately needs reform); to shift our thinking on health to being well and dying peaceably rather than struggling to hold on no matter what the cost or burden; to widen our horizons of interpretation beyond the pecuniary and transactional.

Yet, being an atheist, he also knows that he cannot merely attend what exists, mouth the words, go through the motions, and (as Pascal intended), allow that repetition to harden into conviction.

Nor can I, not being gifted with belief, and being far too gifted with concern for meaning to “give in” to repetition.

But we do need these new “schools of life” and “communities of spirit”, for all that.

I commend the book to you.

And I shall leave you with a thought. Master Moy Lin-Shin’s Taoist Tai Chi Society used to joke that the 109th move (the Tai Chi set used there had 108 moves) was to sit and eat. Whenever the society could afford to build a practice centre rather than simply rent a room somewhere, it was always built with a kitchen.

This short meal after practice was, in its own way, a “school of life”.

It’s a starting-point.

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One Comment

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  1. You hit the nail on the head with the last piece. Food, its production, preparation, serving and sharing is the one single point around which we can all choose to rotate and, of course, the practitioners of Tao and of Zen have an eye to that. If we are what we eat, then those of us who eat the same things, grown in the same place, have a chance to become similar enough to share something substantive.

    Its a very long shot, but as an atheist, its all I’ve got.

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