Without God We Tend to Start Worshipping Ourselves

February 23, 2013
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Credo published in The Times on 23rd February 2013

It is, so the reports say, the first atheist church in Britain. Set in a former church in Islington, its hymns include Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. The altar has an image of the saintly former pop star turned physics professor, Dr Brian Cox. In place of a sermon there is a stand-up comic routine, and instead of readings from sacred texts, there is a PowerPoint presentation on the origin of dark matter.

It sounds terrific, though as a Jew I have to advise the organisers: if you want to flourish, make sure there are whisky and fishballs after the service. I also have to congratulate them on their ingenuity in introducing PowerPoint presentations, the only phenomenon capable of rivaling sermons for inducing sleep.

The holy church of atheism, Islington-style, takes its place in a long line of attempts to create a religion without God. The most famous was that of August Comte, the man who when asked where God was in his scientific theory replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Comte devised a religion of humanity with its own beliefs, priests and pontiff, liturgy, sacraments and temples. It had its holy trinity (humanity, the earth and destiny), its calendar (13 months of 28 days each) and rites of passage (introduction, admission, destination, marriage, retirement, separation and three years after death, incorporation). It was theatrical, magnificent and completely mad, and survived for quite a long time in, I believe, Brazil.

The most terrifying man-made religion was, of course, communism, eventually recognised by such former devotees as André Gide and Arthur Koestler, as “the god that failed”. But 19th-century intellectuals, hearing the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the retreating sea of faith, were full of suggestions as to what might replace religion as a way of celebrating the human spirit.

For Matthew Arnold and other eminent Victorians it was culture. The concert hall and art gallery would be the churches of the future. Hegel said that for modern man, reading the daily paper had taken the place of morning prayer. Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist of religion, thought that trade unions might substitute for congregations of the faithful. Freudian psychoanalysis was a secular confession to a priest, a non-religious way of healing the soul.

Our era has discovered even more impressive religion substitutes. For transcendence and a feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, there are football matches and rock concerts. By way of pilgrimage there are the Boxing Day sales with their crowds, queues and fervent expectancy.

In short, we seem to have a natural disposition to worship, perform rituals, sing and celebrate together, feeling our separateness dissolve into the experience of community. The trouble is it depends on what we worship. Absent God, and we tend to end up worshiping ourselves.

What distinguished monotheism was its insight that the only thing worthy of worship is the Author of all. The worship of less than all — be it science, reason, class, race, nation, wealth, power or fame — is idolatry, and there is no proof that idolaters are more tolerant and capable of laughing at themselves than those who feel secure in the everlasting arms of a caring and forgiving God.

Real community, the kind that you can rely on to give support in times of crisis, is made of something deeper and more demanding than singing 70s songs together. It means sharing a world of meaning — hard to do if you believe that life and the universe are essentially bereft of meaning. It involves a willingness to sacrifice in the name of high ideals. Religions create communities because they have a sense of the holy, and are thus capable of inducing real humility, knowing how small we are in the sum total of things, yet redeemed from insignificance by the love and grace of God.

I do, though, wish the new congregation every success. The joy of togetherness is one way, and a good one, of moving from Stevie Wonder to sacred wonder.