Published On Sun May 13 2012
Some years ago I attended a meeting in the home of a prominent Toronto businessman. Probably because he recognized me as he let me in, he felt compelled to warn me that he was a devout atheist.
Atheism nowadays does indeed require a lot of devotion as it’s on the way to becoming a religion. The title of Alain de Botton’s new book heralds it: Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. He even wants to build temples because “it’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals.”
His book may be an improvement on the many rabidly anti-religious tracts that have become bestsellers in recent years. Whereas they seem to tell readers what they’re against in religion, de Botton’s is potentially a more positive, albeit eccentric, message.
Frank Furedi is a sociology professor and, by his own admission, a supporter of the British Humanist Association. He writes: “Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral high ground.” Perhaps that’s also what my host wanted to tell me as I came through his door.
There was a time when exponents of conventional religion were criticized for being overzealous and dogmatic. Today, in the religious circles in which I mix, openness and tolerance are the order of the day. It’s the New Atheism that, according to Furedi, “expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own.”
I’ve, therefore, consistently refused to engage in debates with atheists. They may consider me a cowardly man of little faith who’s afraid of exposing himself to the truth, but impartial observers will know that contemporary atheists are often even more fanatical than religious fundamentalists. Their zeal seems to know no bounds.
This may be due to their realization that conventional religion is here to stay, not as “the opiate of the people” in Karl Marx’s oft-cited description, but as “an ethical and cohesive force,” as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called it. Conventional religion bestows purpose and meaning on life; atheists may be envious of it.
Because religion is articulated and administered by human beings, it often falls short of its stated ideals — just like atheism. Though atheists are keen to parade the abuses committed by some religious leaders and attack distortions attributed to others, they don’t seem to apply the same criticism to themselves but tend to hide behind what they call reason and science.
Religion, because it’s attuned to and aware of human inadequacies we know as sin, seems to be much more conducive to self-examination and a determination to do better next time.
Joseph Harker, writing last December in the British daily the Guardian, made a strong case for belief in God when he stated that “it offers clarity and opportunity for regular self-assessment, in an atmosphere of genuine humility.” In religion, he wrote, “the world doesn’t evolve around ‘me’; I have to contribute to the world.”
Kristof quotes psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who writes that religious ritual practices point to a solution “to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.” A religious community gives adherents a home and something of a family. Community members often testify to it and, therefore, remain unmoved by atheist onslaughts. Perhaps that’s why de Botton now wants to imitate religious congregations.
In fact, the most common cause of religious conversion is the security of rituals and the comfort of community. Both help people to experience the caring God who loves them. Atheists, however devout, aren’t ever likely to know it.
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every other week.