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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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Fergus Pickering
May 31st, 2008
7:05 PM
The trouble is that the secular religion is so grindingly po-faced and dull. A religion really does have to be exciting. And where are the stories? And imagine a religion whose archpoet is Schiller for God's sake.

Cyril K
May 30th, 2008
1:05 PM
I always admire the way that you cut through to the core of the idea that you are wrestling with. This column is no exception. But I wonder if you have not stopped on the very last step of the staircase. I agree with you that whether God exists and whether religion is 'true' are non-issues. But that is a conclusion that one can reach from inside the structure of traditional religion as well as from outside it. Doing that leaves one in the advantageous position of not having to construct the whole structure from the gound up (poor old David -- he took on an impossible task). The idea that for something to be worthwhile it needs to be completely different from all that has gone before is (or should be) an outmoded 20th century one. Relax, Alain; join a traditional church, observe those disciplines that you can stomach and build on the scepticism of previous generations of intelligent men and women to develop the construct that is, as you say, a necessary and rather wonderful part of human civilisation. And if the jihadists and the bigots call you a hypocrite, reflect that you have been called worse things in your time. It is in any case a small price to pay for reaping the benefits that our relegious tradition has made available to us.

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