Don’t Stop Believin’: Do Atheists Really Need a Church?
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In his poem “Church Going,” Philip Larkin imagines a Britain without faith. “And what remains when disbelief has gone? / Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky.”
The newest atheist philosophes have addressed this threat of spiritual wasteland head-on. As a rule, they do more than denounce theism; they also attempt to build structures that can unite and satiate the growing flock of nonbelievers. Unlike their secular forebears (with Richard Dawkins playing chief pioneer), these New Atheists speak not only of genetic codes and evolutionary impulse, but also of more elusive aspects of the human condition. Their church is both of science and of soul.
The temptation here is to use the word “spiritual,” but this would be misleading. These “New, New Atheists” (to borrow from physicist Jim Al-Khalili) are not to be confused with the followers of another growing church: that of the “spiritual but not religious.” (According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, over a third of the 46 million Americans who are not religiously affiliated identify as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Two thirds of them believe in God.) No, these are bona fide atheists. They speak to those who cannot take tales of revelation or miracle seriously; who do not believe in a spiritually transcendent; who maintain that all accounts of a divine being are, equally, gobbledygook.
But their questions are new. The New, New Atheists ask not whether God exists. (They take for granted that God is a fiction.) And their primary mission is not to prove the irrationality of religious belief. Instead, they ask why God exists — or, rather, why we have invented God and what we can learn from our inventions.
A primary branch of New, New Atheism holds that Atheists have something to learn from the structures, traditions and institutions of the devout. As Alain de Botton summarizes, in his book “Religion for Atheists,”“[It] 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 some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faith.”
De Botton’s premise is that nonbelieving people generally strive to lead good lives, and would both benefit from and appreciate guided opportunities for self-reflection. But atheism doesn’t teach people how to live or to be — and our secular schools, while good at teaching facts, fall short in the nurturing of wisdom.
Organized religion, by contrast, is incredibly adept in the areas of ethical development and moral nudging. Its churches and mosques build community amongst otherwise strangers with shared ideals. Its daily prayers and meditations carve out moments for reverence — and suggest specific things to be revered (family, fertility, springtime, sacrifice, etc.). Its weekly confessions and days of atonement institutionalize moral and emotional catharsis. And its recantations of key texts hammer home lessons learned. In this way, the schedules of religion remind us to be grateful and to be awed. But they also remind us that we are striving to be good — and, in doing so, give us a push in the right direction.
What if, de Botton asks, we regularly held secular seders with loved ones? Better yet, what if those seders took place in restaurants where strangers were encouraged to sit together. And what if, while seated, those strangers were asked to discuss a prescribed list of questions — modeled on “the four questions” that are asked at Jewish seders? And what if posters and TV commercials reminded us to forgive and to be kind — like church billboards do? And what if neighbors agreed to gather together to revere each new moon? And what if travel agents were trained psychologists who could assess our innermost needs, and then suggest a soul-gratifying pilgrimage? And what if students were asked to read fewer books, but to read those few books deeply — like young followers read the Bible or Torah or Koran? And what if Atheists had a Church?