Religion for Atheists

Church newsletter article, 05.02.12

Is it possible to enjoy the benefits of religion with out having to believe in God? Is it possible to take from the many world religions those bits that good and leave out God? I was listening to Richard Bacon’s Radio Five show during the week and caught parts of an interview between him and Alain de Botton who has sought to achieve just that with his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. It was a fascinating discussion and got me thinking a lot about what we gain from our faith.

His plan is to try and tread a middle path never embracing God nor throwing aside religion completely. Rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we live and arrange our societies, looking to religion for helpful insights into how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, get more out of art, and overcome envy and inadequacy. For example he looked at the way religion brings together disparate groups of people, those who would not normally have anything to do with each other, and asked how does it achieve this. One of the key areas he homed in on was Communion; the importance of giving people a chance to seek forgiveness, to accept those who have wronged us and to share a meal together, forging friendship.

The interview reminded me that it is easy to forget the value of what we have in our life together. Here was a non-believer admiring areas of our life that maybe we forget that are so valuable because we are so used to having them. I will probably get a copy of his book to reflect more about what our religion gives us in a way that we don’t normally think about.

I fear, however, that Botton completely missed the point. Ed West wrote in his article on the book in the Guardian this week, ‘…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.’ Similarly, David Blunkett once said that he’d like to bottle whatever it was that gave Church schools their success. You see, it’s not our rituals and practises that make a difference, valuable as they are; it’s that which drives them, that which they point towards – a relationship with the living God. Taking him out of the equation is like having an award winning Formula One car with all the fuel drained out. It might look good but it just won’t work.

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