Religion for Atheists: A Secular Church

Alain de Botton, in an article titled Religion for Atheists, endorses the idea of a secular church:

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.

…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.

He goes to write:

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.

Here’s my earlier post The Secular Church and my post about Sunday School for Atheists.

Some of the features of the secular church that Chris and I will co-found includes:

  • Chris Yeh as featured choir boy
  • No sexual abuse of the children from priests
  • Adequate leg room in the pews
  • Gatorade instead of wine and Clif bars instead of stale crackers served during communion

Note our church will not be a proactively anti-God institution. It will instead appeal to my fellow pro-religion non-believers.

13 Responses to Religion for Atheists: A Secular Church

  1. Dan says:

    Doesn’t this already basically exist, i.e., the Unitarians?

  2. happiertinker@gmail.com says:

    I’ve attended the UU church for 43 years and have never believed in God.
    I like the sense of community it offers.

  3. Leave it to that casual philosopher de Botton to write this nonsense about “our modern secular ideology”, as if there were such a thing.

    His essay, “A Religion for Atheists”, is the sort of exercise in futile argumentation and Byzantine logic one expects from the French (though he is Swiss and writes in English) when they get all wound up in speculative philosophical mode.

    It’s ridiculous even if they do so in lovely prose cribbed from Proust.

    De Botton can no more prove there is “no holy ghost, spirit, Geist or divine emanation” than a Southern Baptist can prove there is a big bad redneck God ready to stomp your ass if you don’t trust and obey his dear loving Awesomeness.

    Religion is a relationship between man and the universe, but consists in more than just a feeling of awe at something larger than oneself.

    Educated men in ancient Greece, though they may have spoken of the official gods of the state as real deities, commonly understood that they weren’t actual personages, but symbolic representations of the fickle, uncontrollable forces of nature.

    The notion that nowadays atheists could ever rally consensus enough amongst themselves to build a new secular religion complete with works of art, landscape gardening and architecture is laughable.

    Your mocking tone would indicate that, and surely de Botton’s proposed fantastical edifice is one Tower of Babel that will never rise from that intellectual plain of Shinar we call philosophy.

    I would agree that we (humankind) desperately need “to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue”, rather than the destructive psychopathology of the insane Judeo-Christian scriptural mythos.

    Sex, drugs,and rock ‘n’ roll have always worked just fine for me, but if you really must have a secular church, the Buddha never required that you believe in gods or God, so you might build a temple dedicated to his teachings.

    And if you must decorate it, please forgo the schlocky installations. I do concur that art should improve us, rather than titillate us with cheap Warholian thrills of shock and surprise.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    So you agree there's a need for some type of church function, you're just
    not convinced a church per se is the best way to do it.

  5. Yes. I think a community of like minded souls is church enough.

  6. Chris Yeh says:

    As I’ve noted to a number of people, professional sports teams sure seem to have a lot of religious characteristics. At the height of his popularity, Michael Jordan certainly seemed at least semi-divine.

  7. Aimee says:

    I think that Dan means the Unitarian Universalists (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unitarian_universalist)…UU is a creedless religion that affirms seven basic principles. The church that I visited a few times was very inclusive in the language of worship and careful not to mention God.

  8. When I went to school and didn’t want to attend protestant religious lessons we were told to take Ethics lessons where we learnt about all different kinds of religion, philosophy, mythology etc.

    Lessons like that should be mandatory for all school children.

  9. Taeyoung says:

    That sounds basically like Confucianism. There’s temples and rites and observances and so on, but at root, Confucianism doesn’t seem to require any particular belief in the divine. If you read the early Confucian texts, like the Classic of Rites, it’s all very centered on humans and human relationships. Even the elaborate Zhou-era funerary rites set out in the Confucian texts are justified not by reference to some deity who needs to be propitiated — or even the deceased ancestors — but in terms of providing a form for a full and correct expression of human grief and longing.

    Of course, in practice, Confucian ritual practice has frequently ended up getting mixed up with local superstition. Xunzi alludes to this in his commentary on the rites (where he notes that to the common people, the mourning rites are all about spirits, contrasting their limited understanding with the understanding of the Confucian “superior man”). The medieval neo-Confucians, following Zhu Xi, grafted a quasi-Taoist cosmology onto the basic Confucian philosophical and ritual framework. And in some places, Confucian ritual practice has been entirely absorbed by overtly religious observances. In Japan, for example, the Confucian Three Years Mourning ceremony has been converted into a Buddhist observance, the Sankaiki, and more remote ancestral observances have been merged into Shinto.

    Confucianism isn’t essentially religious — which is why Korean Christians can still perform the rites without feeling like they’re betraying their new God — but this kind of mixing is, I think, inevitable with any body of secular ritual practice. Eventually, spirits and gods will creep in.

  10. Devin Reams says:

    To that point, I’d argue political parties do, too.

  11. A new religion for atheists? Try Buddhism, a derivative of Hinduism. The Buddha rejected the idea of God and conceived a philosophy of life that, for the most part, appeals to common sense, rationality and scientific thought, even in these modern times. Its tenets facilitate a structure to help us make sense of our own selves and the world around us.

  12. romuva says:

    Why should Unitarians, Confucianists, Buddhists, or Pagans have any sort of monopoly on organized nontheist organizations, settings, or opportunities? Let a thousand flowers bloom!

    The idea of an Atheist church is not entirely new. Madelyn Murray O’Hair, may her spirit never rest, briefly ran an Atheist church whose chief saint was the religious skeptic Mark Twain.

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