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Commentary

Building temples

Agnostics anonymous

Last year, A.C. Grayling gave the world a non-religious Bible. This year, Alain de Botton is saying that: 'it's time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals'.

De Botton's argument is not that atheists need personal religious faith, but that the practical and public side of religion could provide a beneficial influence for the secular world. Society should have temples, rituals and pieties modelled on religious forms but without specifically religious content.

This is odd because it is already widely asserted that social forms of religion have been preserved during secularisation. The resemblance between religious tradition and secular ritual is often expressed in our language - when a sports stadium is described as a 'cathedral', a destination as a 'mecca', or a person as practicing something 'religiously'.

Perhaps the fact that these clich├ęs are so deeply engrained in our way of thinking explains the insecurity of contemporary atheists. They must, one feels, suspect that religion goes very deep in order to have constructed an entire belief system out of rejecting it. By calling for non-religious versions of religious practices they concede religion's primacy.

They concede too much, for universal human practices such as mass gatherings, art, reflection and celebration, do not, in reality, 'belong' to any religion. All peoples of all persuasions have always done all of these things. Even the most countercultural group of revolutionaries develops passwords, rituals and sacred memories. They do not need to 'borrow' these from the religious, nor to give them the credit for inventing them.

Neither did religion invent morality. Yet atheists seem drawn to fight on religion's doctrinal terms, with the increasing tendency to offer humanist ethical creeds. Religion didn't invent the idea of life being meaningful, yet many atheist spokesmen seem determined to present scientific inquiry in quasi-religious and moralised terms in order to compete here too.   

Religious critics of the 'New Atheism' describe it as a religion in itself, an inverted credo with fixed articles of unbelief, anti-prophets and dogmas. They have a lot to gain from this: if atheism becomes a formal creed, it must adhere to the mutually respectful relativism obligatory in a pluralist society. Atheists argue fiercely against this depiction of their unfaith. And yet, so many prominent atheists today seem set on playing into the hands of the religious, by transforming unbelief into a mirror image of belief, the two reflecting, fixing and sustaining each other onwards into a futile eternity. As an agnostic, I want no part of this dialogue of the deaf and dumb. A plague on both your temples.