Religion for Atheists: Reviews

Stephen Cave in the Financial Times,  January 20 2012

Read at The Financial Times website

When the revolutionaries of France began building their new order, they knew it would have to include religion. Even the atheists among them saw that the people needed comforting rituals and sanctioned celebrations to usher them through life. The Christian God, however, had been sent to the guillotine; an alternative was required. Their answer was the Cult of Reason.

Just like old-style religion, the Cult had centres of worship, virtue-stiffening sermons and a calendar of festivities. These climaxed with the Fête de la Raison of November 1793, for which churches across France were renamed “Temples of Reason”. The altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame was replaced with a model mountain, atop which a mini Greek temple stood dedicated “To Philosophy”. Beside it burnt the Torch of Truth and the lengthy proceedings culminated with the appearance of an attractive women dressed in red, white and blue embodying the Goddess of Reason.

But the Cult proved short-lived, and as the revolution consumed itself, a chastened Catholicism crept back into France. The fundamental tension, however, remained unresolved: between, on the one hand, the views of an expanding educated class who saw the many holes in Christian doctrine, and on the other, the people’s need for guidance and meaning that the Church had long fulfilled.

This tension between religion’s intellectual implausibility and its emotional satisfactions remains unresolved to this day. As a result there is a pattern to western thinking on religion since the Enlightenment: first the intellectual classes gleefully declare God dead, then they set to worrying about what, if anything, is to fill the God-sized gap He leaves behind. The Cult of Reason was one answer to this puzzle. Now, after God’s recent execution at the hands of the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and co), a number of thinkers are again asking whether, even in His absence, we need religion regardless.

Foremost among these is the writer Alain de Botton. His smart and stimulating new book, Religion for Atheists, is a sensitive analysis of the deeply human needs that faith meets. He offers practical suggestions for how secular society might learn from religious institutions, but dismisses those institutions themselves as intellectually discredited. It falls to Gavin Flood, the Oxford professor of religion, to mount a thoroughgoing defence of faith-based organisations. In The Importance of Religion, he argues that we need the world’s creeds to help us make sense of the human condition.

But not everyone agrees that there is something in religion that needs to be preserved post-God. The American philosopher Alex Rosenberg, for example, argues in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality that the faiths are dangerous delusions that we can entirely do without. His starting point is that the natural sciences tell us everything there is to know about the nature of reality: “the physical facts fix all the facts”, as he puts it. As he works out the implications of this over the course of the book, it becomes clear that his worldview leaves no room for religious sentiments.

The inspiring stories of the world’s holy books are about troubled souls courageously choosing the rugged path of righteousness over wickedness and temptation. But in a purely physical universe, argues Rosenberg, every assumption behind these stories must be rejected: we have no free will with which to choose between right and wrong; there is no objective moral truth anyway; and there is no soul or enduring self to do the choosing. The electrons and protons of which the world is made know no purpose, and “there is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe”.

What the physical facts lead to, therefore, is nihilism – the belief that life is meaningless. But we need not worry that this will leave us paralysed in the face of an indifferent cosmos, Rosenberg argues, as evolution has provided us with powerful biological imperatives: “The notion that we need something to make life meaningful in order to keep living is another one of those illusions … Like other mammals, we are programmed to get out of bed in the morning.” Nor need we worry that the abolition of religion will lead to moral degeneracy: we have evolved as social animals to be mostly decent to one another, he claims. Hence he describes his philosophy as one of “nice nihilism”.

Though most of these claims are (terrifyingly) true, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality will do little to console those who fear the emotional void left by religion’s demise. But if nihilism – even the nice sort – starts to get you down, Rosenberg has a solution. In his jaunty, hurried prose, he suggests that you simply “take two of whatever neuropharmacology prescribes”. We don’t need religion: the God-sized gap in our lives, he believes, can be filled with Prozac.

You might be thinking that with friends like these, atheism doesn’t need enemies. But of course it has plenty – and one of the most sophisticated is Gavin Flood. A leading scholar of Hinduism, Flood has a keen appreciation of how faith is embedded in the rhythms of the everyday. In The Importance of Religion, he defends rites and scriptures as a legitimate, if not essential, guide to life.

“The world is a mysterious place,” he argues, “which scientific accounts do not exhaust but rather serve to add to its mystery. Religions show us ways of inhabiting our strange world that are transformative for individuals and for communities as a whole.” He spells out these ways in chapters on the value of religion as it is acted out, for example, in pilgrimage and prayer or through its relations with art and politics. He concludes that the New Atheists, in attacking Biblical accounts of the creation or proofs of the existence of God, have misunderstood faiths, which “are not scientific propositions, but encounters with mystery and expressions of human needs that form ways of life”.

The Importance of Religion therefore encapsulates all that Rosenberg rejects. The concepts Flood uses – such as purpose and mystery – are those Rosenberg dismisses as delusional, and the thinkers he cites – such as Freud and Heidegger – are those Rosenberg believes to be charlatans. Most of all, Flood openly focuses on the subjective, emotional, first-person perspective of what it is like to be a human in the world. This is just the perspective that Rosenberg, in so embracing the third-person, objective view of science, denies any validity – wrongly, as even if fundamental aspects of the human experience (such as free will or a persisting self) are illusory, they remain our lived reality.

Flood is therefore right to emphasise the lived experience of religious practice. His portrayal of communities of believers drawing on centuries of accumulated wisdom to make the best of life’s challenges is certainly more inviting than the injunction to take Prozac. The Importance of Religion is at its most convincing when it argues that the practical rituals of prayer, cleansing and communal eating can provide a shape to life that we desperately need, helping us to place our actions within a broader cosmological drama.

But Flood goes too far in focusing on the subjective view at the expense of the objective. It leads him to paste over the intellectual difficulties of belief, playing down, for example, some of the important areas of disagreement between science and faith, such as how evolutionary accounts of our development refute religious versions. And his argument that religions are rational as long as they are internally coherent is a limited idea of rationality, and yet still one that few religions would fulfil (the problem of evil, for example, being a notorious inconsistency at the heart of Christianity).

A balanced middle way between the extremes offered by Rosenberg and Flood would require negotiating between the hard truths of science and the lived reality of being. We must take the objective, intellectual view seriously (not least as, if we don’t, the world has a habit of reminding us of its objective existence). But to lead a successful life, we must also take seriously the fact that we each have complex emotional needs stemming from a subjective viewpoint that will not simply disappear even when “disproved” by science. It is this middle way that de Botton takes in Religion for Atheists.

Although raised “in a committedly atheistic household, as the son of two secular Jews who placed religious belief somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus”, de Botton has a keen appreciation of what religion has to offer. His book is an elegant and witty inquiry into what we can learn from the glaring fact that religions continue to flourish even though most of their claims about the nature of things have long been shown to be, well, not really true.

He asks, for example, “not whether the Virgin exists, but what it tells us about human nature that so many Christians over two millennia have felt the need to invent her”. His answer, a theme of the book, is that we are less grown-up than liberal societies assume we are and frequently in need of guidance, reassurance and tenderness. The Church has never been afraid to shepherd us through life – unlike secular institutions, which can seem remote and uncaring. Whereas New Atheists such as Dawkins argue that such shepherding is infantilising, de Botton believes secular society should learn from religion and be unafraid to acknowledge its needy side.

Take universities, for example. A liberal education is supposed to impart wisdom and self-knowledge, readying young people for life – but you wouldn’t think it from a glance at the syllabus. Unconnected and abstract courses – on medieval Germany or Joyce’s use of pronouns – are taught in ways that reflect academic specialisms rather than students’ needs. Instead lectures should be more like religious sermons, de Botton suggests, preparing us to meet life’s challenges, such as how to overcome selfishness, connect with nature or face illness. The teaching too could learn from the faithful: lecturers should be “sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers”. To his credit, de Botton is trying to put these ideas into practice in London’s “School of Life”, a venue for philosophical discussion of which he is a co-founder.

There are plenty more such ideas in Religion for Atheists, some serious, such as a secular equivalent of the Jewish Day of Atonement when we might seek forgiveness from those we have wronged; some more frivolous, like the annual orgiastic “Feast of Fools” in which we could vent our need for debauchery. To those who wrestle with their faith, this insouciance will seem arrogant. But one accusation often made against such attempts by intellectuals to impose a faux-faith – that it patronises the masses – cannot be levelled against de Botton: the book does not so much suggest that the unruly rabble needs religion, as that he himself desperately misses its comforts and consolations.

Convinced believers will of course wonder why he wants the scraps that fall to the floor when he could be sitting at the table. But for the unconvinced, this is a timely and perceptive appreciation of how much wisdom is embodied in religious traditions and how we godless moderns might learn from it.

After all, stealing the best ideas of other faiths is itself a venerable religious tradition. The great creeds have never been afraid to appropriate rituals, saints or myths from earlier belief systems – even Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s two most important festivals, are revamped versions of older rites. Secular society too should therefore be unembarrassed about adopting what is best from the believers. It is time for a new Cult of Reason.

Stephen Cave is a writer and philosopher based in Berlin. His book ‘Immortality’ is published in April by Random House (US) and Biteback (UK).

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