A Religion for Atheists? | Secular Transcendence

by , under Philosophy, Theology

La Palma Sky a night

Interesting article from last year by Alain de Botton on the possibility of a ‘Religion for Atheists.’ De Botton is clear:

‘by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time.’

So if God was got rid of, what sort of atheist religion could take its place? Interestingly, the problem he identifies is the lack of transcendence that our pretty much atheist society has:

We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings…

He goes on to argue that this transcendence would be restored ‘through works of art, landscape gardening and architecture.’

Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us…

What is beyond, he argues, is the universe, is the sky and stars that make us feel so small. The piece actually made me feel rather sad, as if a lament for this God who has died – a longing to have something that replaced him, without actually wanting Him back. I wonder if other atheists agree, or if there are more who are more ‘low church’ about their unbelief, more materialist and earthy?

If, even in unbelief, we still long for transcendence, what are we transcending into? Transcending the self we have community, transcending that, humanity, and transcending that… our selfish genes? Gaia? It seems that at each level there is a natural drive to seek ‘the other’ beyond. And without that, as de Botton rightly notes, we get rather stuck in mundanity.


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  1. Colin

    Some, like Ernst Bloch or Slavoj Zizek for example, would argue that after one gets rid of God, Christianity would be a suitable choice.

  2. Nic

    How about a “plane of immanence”, a constantly folding and unfolding universe? It gets rid of not only God but transcendence as well. Destroys binary opposites too.

  3. KB

    Be nice to hear you unpack that Nic.

    Colin – I think this is where de Botton misses a crucial point. It is not in architecture etc. that people will find transcendence, but in a body of humanity. This is Zizek’s point: the death of God brings forth a resurrection – but the arrival of the Holy Spirit is actually an enlightened political community:

    “The Pauline community of believers is to be found today in radical political groups, not in churches.

    This connects with Roger Scruton’s definition of the sacred, which is:

    moments that stand outside time, in which the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome, through immersion in the group.

    I’ll freely admit that I need someone better qualified than me to really get to grips with what Zizek is saying, and the implications of it, but I feel that it’s a more fruitful line of enquiry than going for architecture and beautiful human construction.

  4. Travis

    It seems to me that if transcendence is defined solely in terms of the movement from one set of conditions to another then this kind of despondency is inevitable for both atheist and theist alike. Without marginalising the forms mentioned above modern theology needs a deep practice in which normal waking consciousness is transcended in a direct union with God. Integrating the threefold path of Patristic and Eastern Orthodox theology would be the best place to start.

  5. KB

    I’m not sure if that definition is what is being attempted above. I’d say it was more to do with consciousness.

    de Botton appears to want people to become more conscious of architecture, art etc. and to appreciate their place in the universe through consciousness of these material objects.

    What Zizek appears to be doing is to say that the consciousness of the transcendent is more about appreciating our place in the universe through conscious of the community we are a part of.

    I’d be interested in how you would define ‘direct union with God.’

  6. Travis

    KB,

    I guess I was more responding to your comment, ” The piece actually made me feel rather sad, as if a lament for this God who has died – a longing to have something that replaced him, without actually wanting Him back.” – and your question asking what are we transcending into?

    In my view modern theology replaced a vertical transcendence with a flat horizontal transcendence made up of additional things, a movement from one set of conditions to another, hence the constant bifurcation between transcendence and immanence.

    Without marginalizing the considerable advances since the beginning of the modern era, and in addition to the more immanent forms of transcendence you mentioned, I would see a return to and integration with the Mystical traditions of the pre-modern and pre-scholastic Church which is still practiced by not only the Orthodox Church but also others in the West like Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington. These traditions point toward a direct trans-rational deifying experience of God without mediation. I would recommend the writings of Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov.

    Regarding secular culture this is where a lot of Western Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor are coming from – the attempt to create a secular contemplative practice to transcend the completely flat immanent world of a self moving through space and time.

    For both theist and atheist alike we need a path that can help us to transcend the the need to transcend itself – the need that is driven by a sense of lack or sin.