The Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Sacks, has a piece at at HuffPo: “Worship at the atheist altar,” whose title is just a wee bit misleading. Yes, he does urge atheists to worship at churches, and describes one of them in London, but his real point is that even “church”-going atheists are doing it rong.
It is, so the reports say, the first atheist church in Britain. Set in a former church in Islington, hymns include Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” The altar is surmounted by an image of 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 the sacred texts, there is a power-point 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.
Well, Sacks’s attempt at humor falls a little flat, but I have to say that I’d rather get a root canal than worship at that atheist church. An altar with Brian Cox on it? Really? Don’t they know that atheists don’t have gods? And if I want a stand-up routine, or a talk on science, I’d rather trawl the internet.
The whole thing sounds like an ineffectual substitute for church—much like Tofurkey substitutes for a vegetarian’s Thanksgiving turkey—but to each their own. I doubt that this type of faux worship is what atheists would suggest to fill the lacuna left by the faith we strive to dispeal.
But what Sacks really want to say is that atheist churches can’t substitute for the real thing, for they leave out the important thing: the meaning that can come only from God. For those artificial religions just do bad things, like make Stalin a god.
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 was God in his scientific theory replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
The most terrifying man-made religion was, of course, communism, eventually recognised by its former devotees, among them Andre 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.
It’s as if Sacks is offering us a choice here: Stalin or Jesus. But of course there’s humanism, which isn’t a religion but a worldview, and doesn’t demand idolatry. In the end, says Sacks, humanists can’t bond in the same way as the faithful, so there’s no divinity around which to weave a web of empathy:
In short, we seem to have a natural disposition to worship, perform rituals, sing and celebrate together, feeling our separateness momentarily dissolve into the experience of community. The trouble is: it depends on what we worship. Absent God and we tend to end up worshipping 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, the nation state, wealth, power, success or fame — is idolatry, and we have no evidence to suggest that idol-worshippers are more tolerant, easy-going 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.
Sacks is wrong, of course, for people can sacrifice for the ideals of humanism: the idea that what gives meaning to our lives isn’t God, but the chance to help others (both human and animal), and leave the world better than when we found it. We don’t need redemption from anything, and I doubt that the Swedes and Danes, largely atheistic yet not devoid of meaning, feel a deep need for redemption. We are not born sick, but we can be better than we are.
Religion, is, of course, the real Tofurkey, for it offers the most deceptive plate of all: