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Don’t Stop Believin’: Do Atheists Really Need a Church?

There's song and fellowship in London's first atheist church. But are these non-believers just having it both ways?

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De Botton stresses that his goal is “not to create a ‘secular religion,’ but to create a secular society alive to needs which previously only religions catered to.” That, he furthers, can be done by unabashedly “raiding religions for their best ideas.”

But New, New Atheism is not just about building atheist structures; it is about pulling together a godless canon — with culture in the place of scripture. The writer Francis Spufford, for instance, writes of “a reconciliation of unbelief with the sprouting, curling, twining fecundity of culture.” This reconciliation would require that we engage more seriously with art and literature — and that we teach it with an eye for lessons on how to live. In other words, it requires that we read secular culture more  religiously.

De Botton’s musings, however, stray deep into paternalistic waters — and the philosopher appears too admiring of religion’s moral absolutism. Who would set our secular seder questions? And who would design and fund the ethically concerned commercials? Moreover, is there anyone whom I would entrust with “the moral stewardship of [my] soul?” De Botton speaks commonly of an Atheistic “we,” but rarely elaborates on who amongst the “we” would be in charge of guiding the fold. Last year, British literary critic Terry Eagleton  lashed out at de Botton in The Guardian: “What [his] book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly imprudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal.”

Indeed, the ideas have been recycled, though de Botton admits as much. On November 10, 1793, a group of Enlightenment revelers gathered  in Paris to seize the Notre Dame Cathedral — which they later rechristened the  Temple de la Raison. Inside the Church, they covered up the signs and symbols of Christianity. They constructed a temple “To Philosophy,” and hauled in busts of famous philosophers like Voltaire. It was an Enlightenment-inspired attempt to build a secular church, in which the Rational Word could replace the Revealed Word.

Several decades later, the French sociologist  Auguste Comte designed a “Religion of Humanity.” Comte’s vision involved the construction of a massive new priesthood: thousands of sages who could attend to the needs of the secular soul. Secular churches would also be built. (In Comte’s imagination, they would be funded by bankers who, in return, would be immortalized in large busts around the churches’ exteriors.) There would be sermons and festivals and patronage of the arts. And congregants would follow a “positivist calendar,” whose days and months would pay homage to Great Men. (January, for instance, would be ‘Moses’ month. August would be ‘Dante.’) The idea, however, did not catch on. In de Botton’s estimation, Comte’s “greatest error was to label his scheme a religion.”

Looking forward, however, the greatest divide within New, New Atheism is sure to be about structure. Do Atheists need a Church?

In 2012, de Botton announced plans for a “ temple for atheists” in London: a million-pound, 151-foot black building that would stand amidst skyscrapers in London’s financial district. (De Botton already reads at a secular  School of Life near St. Pancras Station.) Soon after, geneticist and Atheist wise man Richard Dawkins struck back: “Atheists don’t need temples,” he avowed. “I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on… You could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, skeptical critical thinking.” Newspapers in Britain  reported gleefully on the Dawkins/de Botton divide: taking it as sign of a great Atheist schism, and proof of theoretical inconsistency.

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