Religion for atheists

September 30, 2012

Communism, psychoanalysis, free market capitalism, nationalism, tourism and consumerism have all been compared to religion. I am sure you will have heard some of these comparisons before. Shopping malls are the new cathedrals. Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise, sang Billy Joel. Tourists are modern-day pilgrims with the souvenirs as relics and the guidebooks devotional aids. We talk about the cult of celebrity. The cult of personality created in North Korea has a population which seems to worship the Kim family as if they were gods. In this post I want to give a brief history of the attempts to import religious practices into secular institutions.

The French Revolution is the archetypal example of the creation of a secular religion. The revolutionaries had banned Catholicism in 1792, but they knew that the people would need to be given an alternative. That is how an atheistic belief system known as The Cult of Reason was born. The Cult had places of worship, fiery sermons and a calendar of festivities, the most important of which was the Festival of Reason of November 1793. Churches across France were renamed “Temples of Reason”. The most famous rebranding was that of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason. Christian statues and paintings were removed and sold off to finance the revolution. The statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by Lady Liberty, also called the Goddess Reason. The statues of the biblical kings of Judah, which the revolutionaries mistakenly thought were French kings, were beheaded. The altar was replaced with a model mountain, on top of which stood a mini Greek temple dedicated “To Philosophy”. Beside it burnt the Torch of Truth.  After a lengthy ceremony Sophie Momoro, wife of the radical printer Antoine-François Momoro*, appeared clad in red, white and blue embodying the Goddess of Reason. The Cult proved to be short-lived, and as the revolution consumed itself, Catholicism gradually asserted itself in France once again.

The Bible has also been subject to secularising intentions. One of my favourites is the Jefferson Bible of 1804. With a pair of scissors and some glue the founding father eliminated all the supernatural aspects of the New Testament. He also got rid of what he saw as incorrect interpretations by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Last year the neo-atheist AC Grayling published his Good Book, a secular bible whose format is the same as the King James Bible. Here is the first chapter of Genesis Grayling style.

1. In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit.

   2. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world.

   3. From it he learns how the tree grows from seed to sapling, from sapling to maturity, at last ready to offer more life;

  4. And from maturity to age and sleep, whence it returns to the elements of things.

  5. The elements in turn feed new births; such is nature’s method, and its parallel with the course of humankind.

  6. It was from the fall of a fruit from such a tree that new inspiration came for inquiry into the nature of things,

  7. When Newton sat in his garden, and saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple,

  8. Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace.

  9. So all things are gathered into one thing: the universe of nature, in which there are many worlds: the orbs of light in an immensity of space and time,

10. And among them their satellites, on one of which is a part of nature that mirrors nature in itself,

11. And can ponder its beauty and significance, and seek to understand it: this is humankind.

12. All other things, in their cycles and rhythms, exist in and of themselves;

13. But in humankind there is experience also, which is what makes good and its opposite,

14. In both of which humankind seeks to grasp the meaning of things.

Today I want to talk about Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, which I read over the summer. I am a De Botton fan. I can recommend titles like The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. His latest work is summed up by a question from his website – even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits? He comes up with a number of ideas, some of them surely tongue-in-cheek, about how secular society could borrow from the world’s great religions, primarily Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism.

In education he feels that university have lost their vocation for improving people. He believes that universities should be about more than just implanting data in our brains.  He also makes the case for more repetition. An idea cannot be assimilated by hearing it just once. Religions are very good at implanting their message by the use of repetition. A more whimsical suggestion is that for their lectures university professors could engage in that kind of call and response style typical of Southern Baptist churches. De Botton thinks that museums have lost their way. The idea that a work of art should be didactic and help us be better people has been lost. He has a novel suggestion for museums; they should organise their works by concepts. There would be separate rooms celebrating love, generosity, the beauty of simplicity or the curative powers of nature. From Judaism he recommends that we institute a day of atonement and from Buddhism he likes the idea of a festival of Tsukimi. In this festival, which honours the autumn moon, you read poems about the moon, the passage of time and the frailty of life.

This sense of perspective is also behind his most commented upon proposal the one to build a 46-metre tower in the heart of the City of London. Designed jointly by the architects Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson, the London Temple, will be a huge black obelisk situated among the skyscraper temples of Mammon in the capital’s Square Mile. The monument is a celebration of the entire history of life on Earth. Each centimetre of its height represents one million years of life. At its base, one metre from the ground will be a band of gold 1mm thick representing man’s time on Earth relative to the age of our planet. Inscribed into the exterior will be an interpretation of the human genome sequence. De Botton hopes this monument will give visitors a sense of perspective and act as an antidote for modern egotism and navel-gazing.

The reaction to the book has been varied with De Botton receiving brickbats from believers and atheists alike. Of the former Terry Eagleton gave a very hostile review in The Guardian:

What the 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. Any book that irritates Mr. Eagleton like that must have something going for it. However the most vitriolic reaction comes from fellow atheists. Richard Dawkins believes that an atheist temple is a contradiction in terms. He suggested that the money be spent on science education.

I did enjoy this quirky book. I found it engaging, a breath of fresh air after the sterile Dawkins v Religion debates of the last few years. Dawkins is a wonderful science writer and when he is writing about the wonder of science it is beautiful. But I think the attacks on religion are counterproductive. Moreover I do think that we non-believers can learn from religions. Many of them have been around for thousands of years. They must be doing something right. However I am not ultimately convinced by De Botton’s ideas.  They are too artificial. They remind me of non-alcoholic beer, decaffeinated coffee or those vegetarian attempts to recreate meat dishes. I tend to agree with the political philosopher John Gray:

Rather than trying to invent another religion surrogate, open-minded atheists should appreciate the genuine religions that exist already. London is full of sites – churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – that are evocative of something beyond the human world. Better spend the money that is being raised for the new temple on religious buildings that are in disrepair than waste it on a monument to a defunct version of unbelief.


*Momoro was the originator of the phrase Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the motto of the French Republic.

Today is Shakespeare the 22nd

September 30, 2012

While researching this week’s article I came across the Positivist calendar, the brainchild of the nineteenth century French thinker, Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology. It was designed to be an alternative to the Gregorian calendar. It had 13 months of 28 days:

  1. Moses
  2. Homer
  3. Aristotle
  4. Archimedes
  5. Caesar
  6. Saint Paul
  7. Charlemagne
  8. Dante
  9. Gutenberg
  10. Shakespeare
  11. Descartes
  12. Frederic
  13. Bichat

That makes a total of 364 days so an additional festival day commemorating the dead was added. On leap years there is a festival day to celebrate holy women. Here is a link to the calendar.

Alas it never really took off. But you have to admit that Comte was a prolific thinker.  He actually created his own secular religion – the Religion of Humanity, whose adherents built chapels in France and Brazil. John Gray gives this description of Comte;

An obsessive and at times unbalanced personality, Comte – a fervent believer in phrenology, like many atheists at the time – developed an elaborate daily ritual that included tapping the forehead at the points where science had supposedly located the impulses of progress, altruism and order. He also created a “virgin mother of humanity”, based on a married woman whom he had fallen in love with. When she died, he appointed her grave a place of pilgrimage.