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The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. It’s a measure of the banality of recent discussions on theological matters that it is precisely this matter which has hogged the limelight, pitting a hardcore group of fanatical believers against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

We’d be wiser to start with the common-sense observation that, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. There is naturally no holy ghost, spirit, Geist or divine emanation. Dissenters from this line can comfortably stop reading here, but for the rest of us the subject is henceforth far from closed. The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up. We can recognise that the needs which led people to do so must still in some way be active, albeit dormant, in modern secular man. God may be dead, but the bit of us that made God continues to stir.

It was our 18th-century forebears who, wiser than us in this regard, early on in the period which led to “the death of God” began to consider what human beings would miss out on once religion faded away. They recognised that religion was not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns that touched on architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time — and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time. So the more fanciful and imaginative of thinkers began to do two things: firstly, they started comparing the world’s religions with a view to arriving at certain insights that transcended time and place, and secondly, they began to imagine what a religion might look like if it didn’t have a god in it.

In the early, euphoric days of the French Revolution, the painter Jacques-Louis David unveiled what he termed “A Religion of Mankind”, a secularised version of Christianity which aimed to build upon the best aspects of the old, discredited tenets. In this new secular religion, there would be feast days, wedding ceremonies, revered figures (secularised saints) and even atheistic churches and temples. The new religion would rely on art and philosophy, but put them to overtly didactic ends: it would use the panoply of techniques known to traditional religions (buildings, great books, seminaries) to try to make us good according to the sanest and most advanced understanding of the word.

Unfortunately, David’s experiment never gathered force and was quietly ditched, but it remains a striking moment in history: a naive yet intelligent attempt to confront the thought that there are certain needs in us that can never be satisfied by art, family, work or the state alone. In the light of this, it seems evident that what we now need is not a choice between atheism and religion, but a new secular religion: a religion for atheists.

What would such a peculiar idea involve? For a start, lots of new buildings akin to churches, temples and cathedrals. We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.

A secular religion would hence begin by putting man into context and would do so through works of art, landscape gardening and architecture. Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us. It isn’t surprising that secular people continue to be interested in cathedrals. Their archi­tecture performs the very clever and eternally useful function of relativising those who walk inside them. We begin to feel small ­inside a cathedral and recognise the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.

In addition, a secular religion would use all the tools of art in ­order to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue. Rather than seeing art as a tool that can shock and surprise us (the two great emotions ­promoted by most contemp­orary works), a secular religion would return to an earlier view that art should improve us. It should be a form of propaganda for a better, nobler life.

It is in German philosophy of the late 18th century that we find the most lucid articul­ations of this idea of idealising propaganda. In his On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), Friedrich Schiller proposed that artists should present us with portraits of secular “saints”, heroic figures of insight and sym­pathy whose example should inspire us. Rather than confronting us with evocations of our darkest moments, works of art were to stand as an “absolute manifest­ation of potential”; they were to function like “an escort descended from the world of the ideal”.

A third aspect of secular religion would be to offer us lessons in pessimism. The new religion would try to counter the optimistic tenor of modern society and return us to the great pessimistic undercurrents found in trad­itional faiths. It would teach us to see the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous secular assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two activities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses.

In denying the natural place reserved for longing and incompleteness in the human lot, our modern secular ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, condemning us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution. A secular religion would build temples, and anoint feast days, to disappointment.

A secular religion would deeply challenge liberal ideology. Most contemporary governments and even private bodies are devoted to a liberal conception of help; they have no “content” — they want to help people to stay alive and yet they make no suggestions about what these people might do with their lives. This is the opposite of what religions have traditionally done, which is to teach people about how to live, about good (or not so good) ways of imagining the human condition, and about what to strive for and to esteem. Modern charities and governments seek to provide opportunities but are not very thoughtful about, or excited by, what people might do with those opportunities.

There is a long philosophical and cultural history which explains why we have reached the condition known as modern­ ­secular society. Yet it seems there is no compelling argument to stay here.

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March 17th, 2012
5:03 PM
On my last trip to Switzerland in 2011, I began to look at EU has a post religious world for the future perhaps and wonder what new belief systems and behaviors will emerge. Simple question to start with. Is EU or the Swiss less ethical or less moral than USA or Texas as a result of not attending church ? I had an aunt at 102 just died to wonder why people needed religion and in her final hours did not want any pastor to pass by. I grew up on relatively main line religious tradition. I did take comparative religious classes and studies liberal theology a bit. I have some understanding of the positives of Islam, Native American spiritual focus, Hindism , etc. So, as all ideologies or belief system , there is also some blending of ideas from other traditions. Islam and Christianity are a blend of other traditions. So, my simple question will man create some form of spiritual secularism in the future. While in Switzerland , I learned from a pastor of the Dutch Pastor who does not belief in God an yet operate a church and as many followers. Business in Switzerland often depends upoon the ethics of customeer. Trams and train have few ticket checker, etc, etc. So, Is EU a model for the future of when religion declines in world, some 200 year from now? I realize that 6 billion out 7 billion perhaps are still committed to some faith-- so this will not happen soon. As someone said above the stories in varous bibles are nice to have , I agree . Some are worried securalism in too individualism , I am not sure. EU and Swiss are more collectivist than USA citizens, and willing to assist others.

Stuart Mathieson
February 7th, 2012
10:02 PM
A somewhat dated issue already. Why re-invent the wheel? Leave well alone I say. The persistence of religious faith in the former Soviet states and China shows the futility of dragooning people into secular alternatives and we already have plenty of politicians, treasury officials, merchant bankers and sustainable lifestylers telling us how to live our lives. Some of their advice is sensible too but we don't need it garnished with sanctimony. I'm happy to leave that to the clerics.

January 31st, 2012
11:01 PM
I find this suggestion quite ludicrous. I do not feel I am 'missing' anything from my fellow citizens who attend their churches. On those rare occasions I have had to enter a church, usually on someone's wedding or a funeral, I have found the ceremonies and the pious lectures to be rather childish and I cannot believe that people actually want to return every Sunday for more. My question, and it appears it relates to something Mr De Botton has probably not delved too deeply into as it refers to reality instead of philosophical dream state, is what on earth will atheists actually DO in these temples? Pray?

November 14th, 2011
7:11 AM
Seems like somebody has had a go at creating Alain's atheist religion, and it's not quite Anglicanism LOL Have a look at

September 23rd, 2011
7:09 PM
I'm so sorry to break the news but Western Society will eventually implode. It is like a man who has partied hard all night and has scatter brains in the morning. It is so naieve to think we have rid ourselves from the idea of God, just because God is dead. The new gods of this society are genes, money, romantic love, the bench press, tofu... These new gods are just as controlling as the old God.

December 29th, 2009
7:12 PM
Despite the fact that I like Alain de Botton’s books, I consider his proposal on establishing an atheist religion somewhat unfortunate. Why? ‘Religion’ is a label for any parallel cultural universe that breaks down in the face of the constantly changing realm of scientific understanding of our world. Religions are ideologies, sets of strong memes, which are similar to viruses in biology. There are stronger and weaker ones. The protestant religion is one of the strongest mental viruses, because it controls the host by an intricate catch of ‘you are not allowed to think what doubts it’. Interdisciplinary education is the only remedy against it. If the attempt to create a secular religion is to rescue some morality then this is pretty doomed. Why? When Marx and Engels dropped god they tried to do something similar. They tired to rescue the ‘sharing idea’ of the church into communism forgetting that the sharing idea contradicted the ‘first law of Darwinism’, competition. The basis of morality is not an instance without, like god, but an instance within, called fear. We have two conflicting modes within us that secure our lives: one is aggression, the other is fear. It is our fear of becoming losers in the competition game that creates morality. It is the pooled fear of the weaker among us that passes laws, and punishment, in order to force ourselves into abiding them. So, there is nothing to replace what is out there already. We can only hope that we can keep prosperity, because prosperity allows for a middle class, which promotes democracy. It is the governing system that allows for the highest possible security. Laws can curb destructive competition. And as for de Botton’s proposal, the temples already exist. Our universities promote science, which in itself is somewhat of an equivalent to what religions are. Only they truly mirror what is out there and in us despite being provisional. Science itself is that, what we should not class with the label ‘religion’. Religions become erratic, science does not, well, at least we hope it doesn’t.

Laurie John
November 7th, 2009
4:11 PM
God may or may not be creator of the universe but at this point in the cycle we are creating God. The anthropic principle implies that at the end of time the God that intelligent agencies have created brings all that is into being by his observation and understanding. Meanwhile we have a vital part to play. I'm working on it!

Jairo Mejia
July 31st, 2009
10:07 PM
Atheists and Gnostics are right in most of their thinking It has been common among religious believers to look with misgiving to atheists and Gnostics, and to think that they are mistaken; however, in many instances the opposite is the truth; some religious beliefs are not just irrelevant, but baseless. The “God” of main line traditions simply does not exist. I accepted the challenge of finding the One who may be recognized even by Gnostics and atheists: the Existence itself, “All-That-Is.” If something is there, that is God. Look at the book “Christianity Reformed From ist Roots - A life centered in God” ( I am confident that some of your friends will be relieved of the illusion, as I did myself. Jairo Mejia, M. Psych., Santa Clara University Retired Episcopal Priest Carmel Valley, California

February 2nd, 2009
1:02 AM
So why hasn't secularism been able to inspire communal rituals, etc., in its followers, as religion does, rather than individualism? Not for lack of trying. Here in North America, there are a number of "Churches of Freethought" and the like, esp. in Texas. They also tried to start one in northern California, but it has folded. And by and large, most secularists are content to act individually rather than communally - and why wouldn't they? Why wouldn't one sleep in or go golfing, Sunday morning; why get up to go hear a secularist 'sermon', I mean, lecture? One reason: religions manage to inspire their followers by requiring sacrifices of them, which their followers are willing to commit, for the greater good, as they see it. The same is true of such all-encompassing political/social/economic/worldview ideologies like Communism; one often hears of the selflessness of sincere Marxists, devoted to their cause; the fact they use terms like 'comrade' probably helps (much like 'brother' and 'sister' in religious circles). But secularism, absent an overarching political / social ideology like Marxism: how can such a bare-bones philosophy inspire anyone to sacrifice, to communal behaviour and ritual?

Charles E. Flynn
November 17th, 2008
4:11 AM
God is not dead. He isn't even sick. - Fr. John Corapi

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