Religion for atheists, the non-believer's guide to spirituality

There are atheists who now admit that religion is too powerful a force to dismiss in its entirety, Richard Handler writes. Therefore, their argument goes, non-believers should just borrow and steal the best bits for their own purposes.

Prominent atheists, like philosopher Alain de Botton, don't want to throw out everything religious, just the bits about God

On Saturday, a large group estimated at between 8,000 and 25,000 atheists gathered in the pouring rain on Washington's National Mall to "deliver a message to America." Organizers called it the Reason Rally.

"We are here and we will never be silent again," said David Silverman, president of an organization called American Atheists (quoted in the Washington Post). As if that were ever the case.

With bestselling books and media appearances by the late Christopher Hitchens, among others, America's non-believers have never been accused of being silent (though it's still inconceivable that any would actually run for high office).

More than being simply outspoken, the rhetoric from prominent atheists like Britain's Richard Dawkins (who addressed the rally) and Sam Harris has been staunchly anti-religious.

For them, religion is almost always deemed to be an immature human construct, hostile to reason, science and ultimately, the well being of society.

However, the siren call of the religious impulse is so overwhelming, it is hard for many people to resist.

That's why there are atheists who now admit that religion is too powerful a force to dismiss in its entirety. Therefore, their argument goes, non-believers should just borrow and steal the best bits for their own purposes.

Religion 2.0

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of these borrowers.

He has long argued that religion is a "natural phenomenon." And even though non-believers should try to "break its spell," they must appreciate its remarkable hold on humankind.

Philosopher and public intellectual Alain de Botton. (Reuters)

Now, another well-known atheist, the Swiss-British philosopher/television presenter Alain de Botton, has stepped forward to ask us to see the worth in something that he doesn't really believe in.

In fact, he wants to update the old brand and create what he calls Religion 2.0 for the secular age.

De Botton is not one of your furious "New Atheists," come to do battle with what they see as the narrow-mindedness of fundamentalism.

He is the author of Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, which is a charming, rationalist helpmate for the theistically challenged.

De Botton is a fabulously articulate writer of popular philosophy books such as How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

And as a lecturer and TV performer, he's so affable and amusing that you can forgive him for not wanting to waste his time being angry at ayatollahs and creationists.

But his stage antics can mask the fact that his books are more seriously argued than his stand-up performances suggest. For one thing, they make the case for the almost spiritual importance of community.

The gift of equality

In many ways, de Botton's argument is not new. The heart of it lies in a sentiment you hear and read about all the time: "One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community."

You can talk all you want about the use of secular institutions to provide that kind of neighbourly feeling. Political meetings, gyms, yoga classes.

But de Botton argues that these gatherings are really only a collection of individuals, in the guise of group activity, a sop to the chronic human feeling of aloneness.

As well, even these commonplace activities are subject to "status anxiety" (the title of one of his books) as the first question often asked at these social gatherings is "What do you do?"

That translates into how can I gauge you — how can I measure your significance and importance.

No wonder, de Botton writes, that so many of us "choose to throw ourselves with a vengeance into our careers."

Religion, at its best, has that true gift for equality. You can leave all your worldly accomplishments behind when you join in a mass or service with other humans.

Princes and paupers alike must humble themselves before something greater than their own ambitions or identities, a practice de Botton feels atheists would be well served to emulate.

Pass the bread

As an atheist, de Botton seems to have fallen in love with the institution of religion.

He really loves the sway, the power and the charismatic claim of religious institutions. He even likes the architecture. Only he doesn't believe God has anything to do with any of it.

In his view, it is our hunger for meaning that is at the core of the human experience. It trumps divinity, which is just another human creation as he sees it.

De Botton also appreciates religion for its moral purpose, its outright sense of instruction, its educational duty and virtuous, do-good sentiments and impulses.

He tells us sermons are more powerful than secular lectures, particularly in their ability to provide moral and ethical guidance in a repeated fashion.

He also has a great many suggestions for adapting religious practices to a secular world.

For example, early Christians broke bread in communal meals. So we should eat at neighbourhood "agape" restaurants, borrowing the term for Christian love. Just pass the bread and leave God out of it.

For him, any notion of transcendence, that sense of overarching meaning, is simply an aesthetic feeling — it's not religious.

Look at great art, recite a beautiful poem, marvel of the intricacies of a cell or the mystery of the quantum universe. No designer, no divinity. You can be a godless atheist and still be humble before the universe.

In the end, for both de Botton and someone like Hitchens, you don't need God's imprimatur to license human feelings of wonder. To use the popular phrase, you really can be "spiritual without being religious."

Reading de Botton, you can be on his side and still feel him straining to reorder and finesse the religious impulse.

The human need for religion may be a sign of weakness when facing the harsh reality of pain, cruelty or death — or it can be the recognition of something truly mysterious and transformative.

Either way, it is powerful enough that even some atheists feel the need to harness its mystique.