Religion for Atheists

A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

May 3, 2015

Religions have survived and thrived because of a deep understanding of our human nature. The secular world should not abandon that wisdom because of a minor quibble over the definition of a soul.

Like a lot of people, I grew up going to church without really having chosen it. That was just what we did. And perhaps also like a lot of people, I stopped going to church when I got to college, my head filled instead with ego and Nietzsche. But for the past year since moving out to Indianapolis, I’ve started going back. I’m sure some of what draws me is the connection to that aspect of my childhood home. But I also really like it.

I enjoy the literary criticism, the reading of a difficult text and its supporting history, trying to discern what it meant in its time, and what it can mean today. I like the singing, the embodiedness of it. It’s one thing to read the text of Amazing Grace, and quite another to feel its words vibrating within and around you. I appreciate the diversity, not just how church is sometimes the only occasion during the week where I meet strangers, but how it brings me into contact—physical contact when we shake hands and say “Peace be with you”—with people from other generations, cultures, and income groups. But more than anything, I value what church stands for, a community of fellow seekers on the road of life, here to help each other try to live a little better, to bring a little more justice, kindness, and compassion into the world. In few places are these things offered individually, and perhaps nowhere but church are they offered together.

I expect this may sound alien or at least naïve to some readers. Regrettably, Christianity today is more often known for the hypocrisy and bigotry of some of its loudest (and least representative) elements. For that reason and others, I see my generation abandoning church and religion entirely, and in many ways I can’t blame them. But I think that’s a mistake, because there’s really nothing else quite like church in the world.

Alain de Botton, writing about religion in general but primarily Christianity in Religion for Atheists, sums up the very best of religion thus:

Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with a practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history.

De Botton is writing from an interesting intersection. He is an unabashed atheist who nonetheless perceives that religions are the accretion of millennia of wisdom about human nature and culture, wisdom for which the post-Enlightenment, hyper-individualist, consumer-capitalist secular world is sorely wanting. To his atheism, I think de Botton just has too narrow a definition of God. And to his other points, I find it inspiriting to read someone I admire, with such incontestable secular bona fides, appreciating many of the same things I do about church.

After all, whatever your beliefs on its origins, religion has, for as long as humanity has existed, served our very real human needs and longings. Calling yourself an atheist doesn’t magically fill the hole of religion’s absence, which is how de Botton begins:

God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.

What follows are some important aspects of life which religions have grown best at nurturing.

Community

Religions are a special kind of community. Unlike one’s ethnicity, nationality, or social class, you can generally choose your religion. They’re are communities of shared values, not just shared skin color or background, and it’s for this reason that religions can cut across ethnic, national, and class lines. Crucially, they provide members something to have in common with each other which they might otherwise struggle to identify. As de Botton describes:

Those in [Church] attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values.

Doesn’t the world need more of that? And I loved the boldness with with he describes how a church can set up an inclusive space in defiance of all the ways the world tends to set up apart:

Catholicism starts to create a sense of community with a setting. It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their parameters there will reign values utterly unlike those which hold sway in the world beyond, in the offices, gyms and living rooms of the city.

Education

I read a lot of books in college that I would have said changed my life. I remember very few of them, and can’t say my life is very different for them. Reading something just once, however compelling it may be, is rarely enough to change us. Religions understand the power and the necessity of repetition in any educational endeavor the result of which we truly hope will make us better.

We all possess wisdom that we lack the strength properly to enact in our lives. Christianity pictures the mind as a sluggish and fickle organ, easy enough to impress but forever inclined to change its focus and cast its commitments aside. Consequently, the religion proposes that the central issue for education is not so much how to counteract ignorance—as secular educators imply—as how we can combat our reluctance to act upon ideas which we have already fully understood at a theoretical level.

Christians have something called a lectionary: a repeating calendar of themed scripture readings which ensures that you’ll bump into certain important ideas on a regular schedule. If only the secular world had some equivalent, a calendar of prose and verse that ensured you’d never go too long without thinking upon Plato, Woolf, or Whitman.

De Botton playfully considers what a university might look like if it borrowed from religion and had a commitment to wisdom as serious as its commitment to knowledge:

Departments would be required to confront the problematic areas of our lives head-on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies would be given form and explored as openly in lay institutions as they are in churches. There would be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artifacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

And it’s not just the curriculum which would have to change, but its delivery:

Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.

Pessimism

Religions refreshingly acknowledge something which secular individualism finds unseemly: that we are imperfect creatures who don’t have everything together all the time, and that that’s okay. Religion provides us with that age-old salve of the stoics: pessimism.

Material improvements since the mid-eighteenth century have been so remarkable, and have so exponentially increased our comfort, safety, wealth and power, as to deal an almost fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic—and therefore, crucially, to our ability to stay sane and content. It has been impossible to hold on to a balanced assessment of what life is likely to provide.

In a religious context, the idea of God takes some of this responsibility off our shoulders:

Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.

And when we fall, we are at least not alone:

It is fundamental to the power of the Christian story that Jesus died in more or less the greatest agony ever experienced by anyone. He thus offers all human beings, however racked by illness and grief, evidence that they are not alone in their condition—sparing them, if not suffering itself, then at least the defeated feeling that they have been singled out for unusual punishment.

Art

While cultural institutions hesitate to claim what art means or is for, religions have championed the audacious idea that art can teach us how to live.

Christian artists have tirelessly striven to render virtue vivid, to pierce through our cynicism and world-weariness and to lay before us depictions of individuals whom we should all wish to be a little bit more like.

De Botton would like to see museums take up this goal:

Museums must be more than places for displaying beautiful objects. They should be places that use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise.

It’s often said that in a post-religious world, museums are the new temples, culture replacing scripture. But if that’s so, de Botton thinks museums are doing a shabby job of it. He’d like to see an art museum organized by theme, by what art might teach us, rather than medium or period. Instead of wings for Sculpture or Nineteenth-century Painting, how about rooms for Awe Before Nature, Humility, or Dealing with Loneliness?

Art’s great advantage in making us better and wiser creatures is its ability to shift our perspective, to see the familiar in an unfamiliar light. And our perspective is deeply tied to capacity for compassion, as de Botton poignantly notes:

The possibility of responding compassionately to others is crucially linked to our angle of vision. According to our perspective, we may see either a self-righteous husband lecturing his wife or two wounded and humiliated individuals equally unable properly to articulate their distress; a proud battalion of soldiers in a village street or a frightened girl hiding from invaders in a doorway; an old man walking home with a bag of groceries or a former gold medallist in free-style swimming transformed into a stooped, sallow figure unrecognizable even to himself.

Institutions

In his Republic, Plato conveyed a touching understanding (born from experience) of the limits of the lone intellectual, when he remarked that the world would not be set right until philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers. In other words, writing books can’t be enough if one wishes to change things. Thinkers must learn to master the power of institutions for their ideas to have any chance of achieving a pervasive influence on the world.

Religions are still some of the most powerful and influential organizations in the world today. And in my estimation, they’re the most significant, and perhaps the only, institutions advocating for the life of contemplation and wisdom. Universities come close, at their very best, by fighting in the public sphere for the cause of knowledge, but that’s not quite the same. Religions understand, perhaps better than any other institution because they’ve been around the longest, how to marshal bodies, minds, and funds in the service of wisdom and compassion…

…how to coalesce the scattered efforts of individuals interested in the care of souls and organize them under the aegis of institutions.

Religions do seem to be losing their sway. The persecution of homosexuals by some Evangelical Christians, the shameful mishandling of child-abuse in the Catholic church, and many terrorists claiming the mantle of Islam have all served to undermine the idea, especially among my generation, that religion has any place in the modern world. But what religion represents—the contemplative life, service to others, and community across boundaries—is more essential now than ever before.