Ed West writes:
Religious social pressure certainly nudges the not-so-kind-hearted into behaving correctly. At the very least religion meant that once a week a City banker had to attend a church where they had to mingle with the ordinaries. Today’s super-rich do not.
The community–enhancing power of churches is well documented. When David Blunkett said he would like to “bottle” whatever religious schools had that drove their success, he was partly talking about what sociologists call social capital – a sense of community, trust, connections and networks. Popular Catholic and Anglican schools demand that prospective parents attend church every Sunday and, taking aside whether one agrees with the truth of what is said there, having a group of parents together once a week listening to exhortations to peace, love and forgiveness is surely going to help the school their children attend.
Atheists can never mimic this; indeed they have tried before. In the late 19th century the Ethical Cultural Movement held its own services but it soon died out. After all, who wants to spend their Sunday morning listening to some sanctimonious so-and-so repeat what he’s read in The Guardian? Thanks to Radio 4, I can do that from the comfort of my bed.
It’s unlikely that atheism can ever really mimic religion’s strength. “Temples of Reason” have been tried before but the ideology that was to replace Christianity in France soon burned out. Even from an architectural point of view I’m sceptical that an atheist society is capable of producing something as beautiful and divine as Chartres Cathedral. So far post-God Europe’s record in that department has not been fantastic.
Strangely, de Botton touches on religious ideas of child-rearing, but does not mention atheism’s most crushing weakness – its effect on fertility rates, which are well documented. (In Austria, the only country which measures fertility levels by religious observance, atheists have a total fertility rate of 0.86 child per woman.) Back to its earliest roots, religion was seen as a way of linking a community with its past and therefore its future; and fertility rates are the ultimate expression of long-term planning. What atheism is most missing is optimism and hope.
For that reason, religion for atheists will always be something of an alcohol-free lager; sure, it doesn’t have the bad and mad side effects, but it just isn’t the same.
The real problem is that religion is always replaced by something else. The rise of fads such as homoeopathy is well documented, but more commonly people’s religious desires for certainty, morality and community are transferred to their politics; that is why there is this sense that those outside the communion of correct beliefs today are morally unclean, and new sins such as “racist” and “sexist” replace “heretic” and “sinner”. That is the real “religion for atheists”.
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