Religion for Agnostics

I don’t remember exactly when I stopped believing in God. There wasn’t a specific trigger for my loss of faith, like a tragic death or a sudden realisation of the scientific improbability of the Genesis story being even remotely accurate. My belief in a creator just kind of fizzled out in my mid-teens as I drifted into an uncaring agnosticism, which I have maintained ever since.

I do, however, have vivid memories of a time when I did believe in God. I distinctly recall, aged about 12, being sat in the back of my parents’ car on a family holiday in North Wales (or somewhere else that has lots of rain and hills) arguing vehemently that God must exist. The universe, I reasoned, can’t have simply emerged out of nothing, ergo somebody or something must have created it. (The question – who, then, created God? – apparently hadn’t yet occurred to me at this stage.)

My desire to base my belief in God on the principles of rationality probably meant that I had already begun my gentle slide into agnosticism (although I didn’t realise it at the time). Eventually this pursuit of reason led me to conclude that the existence of God was neither provable nor disprovable, so why worry?

Ironically though, as my faith receded, I found myself spending more time in church rather than less. My loss of faith pretty much coincided with my falling in love with choral singing. For the last seven years (and probably longer), I have attended church weekly (and at times twice weekly), to sing Eucharist or Evensong.
During that time, my life has been enriched by the discovery of a wealth of great sacred choral music and I have met many of my best friends through singing, almost always in a religious context. Admittedly my equally religious adherence to the practice of following each service with a visit to a nearby pub has probably been more significant in forging those friendships than the act of singing together in a holy place, but still, you get the point.

So, as someone who has a deep respect for many aspects of religion, but lacks any personal faith, I approached Alain de Botton’s bestselling book, Religion for Atheists, with high expectations. The book is full of interesting nuggets and good, commonsensical ideas, but it ultimately left me cold. I was disappointed by the shallowness of De Botton’s pick-and-mix approach to religion.

The basic argument of the book is that secularists ought to create their own pseudo-religious institutions that can take on many of the useful functions – community building, pastoral care, education, giving people a sense of perspective and peace – that religions have so effectively performed over the centuries.

The trouble I have with this is that De Botton’s imagined secular institutions sound so woefully unappealing. Who, in their right mind, would stop in at a secular Temple to Tenderness after a particularly shit day at work? Or go to their university’s newly-opened Department for Relationships when their love life goes a bit pear-shaped? And who would actually choose to go and have dinner with a bunch of strangers at an Agape (from the Greek word for love, which was used to describe early Christian feasts) restaurant?[1] We may lament the erosion of our communal life, but personally I’d rather stay in and write a blog about it than go out and try my luck with humanity at large.

What makes De Botton’s ideas so unappealing is his literal-mindedness. Yes, it’s true that religions were invented as a handy solution to two fundamental human impulses – a desire for meaning and a fear of our own mortality. But part of the genius of religion, whether you believe in it or not, is the rather oblique way in which it addresses these needs. It’s deliberately somewhat mystifying, and necessarily so, because it’s attempting to answer questions – what constitutes a life well-lived? How do we cope with the inescapable fact of our own impending death? – that go beyond the realm of pure rationality.

De Botton wisely acknowledges that, even for secularists, the Christian concept of a soul is a useful and important one. But again, his suggestions for how to nurture our souls – a yoga retreat here, a spot of stargazing there – strike me as being too piecemeal and un-holistic.

One of the more intriguingly outlandish ideas in the book is the call for a secular revival of the medieval Christian Feast of Fools – essentially an annual four-day bender. The idea was to create an outlet for all our pent-up desire to be sinful. It was a time when clergy would play drinking games in the nave, dice on the altar, and generally shag anything that moved. And the debauchery was by no means restricted to men of the cloth.

Fun as this all sounds, I think the idea is based on a flawed premise – namely, that we all have an inherently sinful and destructive nature that needs to be given an outlet from time to time so that we can be pure and righteous the rest of the time.

The reality is that we each have tremendous capacity for both good and evil, but you can’t expel the latter by trying to get it out in one gigantic hedonistic splurge. If anything, given all we know about human behaviour and how easily we form habits, quite the opposite is true. Better to be a bit of a fool all of the time than a lot of a fool some of the time. Life isn’t so easily compartmentalised.

Last week, I was at the St Endellion Easter Festival in Cornwall. Now, it’s true, in some regards Endellion can be a bit like the Feast of Fools. There’s certainly plenty of insobriety, though perhaps rather less debauchery. But far from being a chance to give two fingers to God and our better selves, this mild hedonism is integrated as part of a week whose principal focus is community, spirituality and creativity.

Again, I can’t help but notice that there is an important religious component, without which the Festival would not be the same. It’s not in-your-face, evangelical religion. It’s the softly-spoken, unobtrusive (and at times seemingly almost non-existent) faithfulness that the liberal end of the Anglican church specialises in.

At the heart of last week’s Festival were two performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and one of James MacMillan’s extraordinarily heartfelt, vivid and wrenching Seven Last Words from the Cross.

And therein lies perhaps the most powerful argument against any attempt to dismantle and replace religion. Just look at the cathedrals and churches, the oratorios and anthems, and the paintings and murals that it has inspired. Where are their secular equivalents? What other force can motivate such commitment and creativity?

Religion’s hold over us may have faded significantly in the last few centuries, but its ability to inspire great works isn’t simply a relic of a bygone age. Witness MacMillan’s Seven Last Words, written just twenty years ago.

Ultimately, I share both De Botton’s respect for religion and his lack of belief in a higher power. But far from making me want to abolish the church and re-make it in our own secular image, I find myself thinking that, if religion has done such a good job of looking after our psychological and spiritual needs over the centuries, why not let it carry on? As an agnostic, I still prefer my religion to have a God at its centre.


[1] To be fair, the success of De Botton’s School of Life suggest there may be more mileage in some of his ideas for new institutions than my derisory tone suggests.


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