A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion
The most boring question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true. Manifestly, none are. Yet this should not stop us cherry-picking the bits we like and repackaging them as self-help aphorisms for a liberal middle-class who consider themselves too clever for Paulo Coelho. I myself was brought up a committed atheist, but even I had a crisis of faithlessness that originated in listening to Bach's cantatas, was developed by exposure to Zen architecture and became overwhelming on reading my own prose.
Why then should secular society lose out on the benefits a religion can offer merely because it rejects certain of its catchphrases? Is there not a middle way where Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins can join hands and teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? My strategy, then, is to take various religious principles completely out of context and apply them as feelgood, quasi-spiritual soundbites to areas such as education, literature and architecture. And if mention is made here of only three of the world's largest religions – Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism – it is no sign of anxiety that I might get a fatwa if I also rope in Islam.
One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. Religions may have evolved out of a need to enforce social cohesion, but one cannot deny the sense of belonging that going to church confers on the participants. In our atavistic, rationalist world we have lost these connections. While we may surrender up to half our income in taxation, we have no sense of how that money is being spent. How much better it would be if the less fortunate members of the polity were able to congregate in one place to say thank you to me in person while the Monteverdi Choir sings Mozart's Mass in C Minor.
A squalid new-build university in north London. Not at all like the university I went to, but one to which the little people can reasonably aspire. Yet what are they being taught? Land reform in 18th-century France? What is the purpose of that? Literature and history are superficial categories. How much greater benefit would there be to student and society alike if universities were to have a Richard and Judy Department for Relationships or a Deepak Chopra Centre for Personal Growth? Imagine also the power of hearing Montaigne's essays rewritten as versicles and responses with a 100-strong student chorus after every sentence.
Religion may offer empty promises of a happier afterlife, but we should not overlook its power in helping people to cope with the fact they are never going to be as rich or as clever as me. Face it, some people are born losers and some aren't – and the losers need whatever consolation they can find. The orthodoxy of modern science is that we will eventually be able to explain everything in material terms, yet what science ought to be doing is helping us celebrate those things we will never master. Thus we would do well to prostrate ourselves in front of an image of Brian Cox and meditate on the 9.5 trillion kilometres that comprise a single light year.
One of the great miseries imposed on atheists is the renunciation of ecclesiastical art. Yet what person has not been enriched by the altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St Colin in Beckenham? The stations of the cross help the religious in their suffering, yet what is to stop us imposing our own spiritual needs on modern art? What was Christ's crucifixion but an existential dilemma? Viewed through this perspective, the secular can once more reclaim the Sistine Chapel as a symbol of a male midlife crisis. So let's do away with the grubby architecture of northern British towns and rebuild a new Jerusalem in north London, a temple to myself and Auguste Comte.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religionby Alain de Botton http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/22/digested-read-religion-for-atheists
"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck