Giles Fraser: Atheists can’t borrow the clothes of true faith

01 February 2012

IN 1793, the revolutionaries of France took over the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to set up a temple to reason. They sat round worshipping the torch of truth and an actress all dressed up in a blue, white, and red flag, symbolising republican Liberty. In the year that followed — the so-called Reign of Terror — tens of thousands of men, women, and children were murdered for their resistance to the ideals of the French Revolution and the Committee of Public Safety, which ran France as a brutal dictatorship.

The idea of having religion without God does not have a dis­tinguished history. But Alain de Botton’s project of setting up a series of atheist temples ought not to be seen in this light (Features, 20 January). Asset-stripping religion for all the best bits feels slightly foolish to those of us who want the real thing, but it does represent the desire of some atheists to enter into a more imaginative relationship with re­ligion. At least this is not a version of the Dawkins/Grayling nonsense.

The de Botton crowd and their School of Life understand that the great cathedrals meet a spiritual longing in people for an experience of the transcendent. They recognise the value of liturgy as a means to rehearse and reinforce what it is that people believe. But here is the ques­tion. What do they believe?

De Botton’s answer is that it does not really matter. He begins his new book, Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton, 2012), with the following observation: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of a religion is whether or not it is true.”

I would be the first to admit that truth is not an easy idea, and that the very concept of truth works dif­ferently in different contexts. “I love you” is not true in the same way as “Berlin is the capital of Germany” is true. Likewise, religious truth is not always the same as empirical truth. But none of this is to say that truth has no application. It must have.

What is the purpose of all that dressing up and wandering about, holding candles, if it is just about gaining a few esoteric experiences? To this extent (and only to this extent), I prefer the revolutionaries of France and their torch of truth.

De Botton seems an entirely good egg, but his whole project is mis­conceived. Religion cannot be re­duced to ethics and aesthetics. It requires a belief that there is a truth that pulses through the universe. Christians believe that this truth is God, and that this truth makes life worth while. Borrowing the wardrobe of faith in order to dress up atheism as religion is all very flat­tering; but few people are really going to buy it.

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