Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

I believe we need church for atheistsTen virtues: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton

I envy and sort of admire the church at the end of our street. Of course, I've never been in. But it looks nice in winter, all lit up. And, come to think of it, I've been into the adjoining hall – to vote.

I can't think off the top of my head which sect it is, though I've a pretty good idea, and I couldn't give a damn either.

I like that there's always a lot going on. They put wee leaflets through our doors advertising yoga, pilates, travellers' talks, concerts (jazz and classical), and occasional events involving cakes and second-hand clothing.

Such a marvellous community resource. It's only the gloomy presence of God, skulking behind the pillars, that spoils it.

I must say that those from our street who go to church tend to be the nicest folk. Elderly, of course. They go for the company and out of fear of a vengeful deity.

But it's a shame that atheists don't have anywhere to go, other than Hell. As someone who doesn't function well in heat, I'll be giving that a miss. I believe Earth is Hell anyway.

But I feel for my good friend Ivan. He's a humanist celebrant – like a minister or priest, but with fewer moons on his cloak – and, whereas his officiating at weddings and funerals was an occasional thing when he started a few years ago, he's now run off his feet.

Coming from Northern Ireland, his disdain for religion is total and passionate, and I think he suspects even me of backsliding in my commitment to godlessness (mainly because I lean towards the possibility of an afterlife, one where there are lots of pies and no body-fat).

But it's a shame that he and his jolly mates don't have a presence in the community, somewhere we could all congregate at the weekend to hear a delicious talk or eat an improving cake.

Well, there are signs that such places could be on the way. The Sunday Assembly in north London launched last month and already has been stowed out.

The so-called "atheist church" offers a celebration of life in which the unfaithful listen to readings from literature and science, and sing along to songs by Stevie Wonder and Queen.

Pity about the last bit. There's still enough of a presbyterian in me to be disdainful of singing and dancing. But, still, I like the sound of this. It comes as the writer Alain de Botton unveils a Manifesto for Atheists, listing 10 virtues for the rational: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope, and confidence.

Must say I have my doubts about the last three. But surely atheists are allowed to doubt? De Botton also believes that atheism – or "cultural humanism" – should have its own churches.

The Sunday Assembly's mantra "live better, help often, wonder more" is an inspiring one.

However, there are already fears that the organisation could turn into a cult. Hierarchy and politics are bound to rear their ugly heads and, before you know it, those at the top will be wearing funny hats and cloaks, just like the religious do.

In the meantime, though, these are omens of hope (atheist commandment nine, remember). De Botton's hope is that being virtuous is no longer the "strange and depressing notion" that religion has made it.

Amen to that.

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