Friday was a good day: discussing religion and atheism with kids whose reaction was to object to intolerance – from anyone!

This article is from the February 4 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit


Religion is an enduring human need that cannot be denied.

Alain de Botton has reinvigorated the conversation on religion. His new book, Religion for Atheists, moves away from the tedious debates of recent years to a more reflective consideration of religion’s role in sustaining shared values.

Religion as a human phenomenon is too vast, pervasive and complicated to be discussed in simple binary terms of belief and unbelief. The evangelical atheists of the past few years may not be notable for sceptical doubt, but religious practitioners are often quite uncertain in their beliefs. De Botton is writing for the sceptics, whether they belong in any religion or not. It’s a welcome shift of focus.

Atheists who aren’t bigoted enemies of religion will agree that it has made many positive contributions. They are less likely to accept they should have a religion of their own – complete with a temple in London – as de Botton goes on to propose. Establishing atheist places of worship isn’t exactly a new idea. As de Botton himself notes, an ambitious program of atheist church-building was part of the Religion of Humanity, invented by the 19th century French thinker Auguste Comte.

An obsessive and at times unbalanced personality, Comte – a fervent believer in phrenology – developed an elaborate daily ritual that included tapping the forehead at the points where science had supposedly located the impulses of progress, altruism and order. He also created a ‘‘ virgin mother of humanity’’ , based on a married woman with whom he had fallen in love. When she died, he appointed her grave a place of pilgrimage.

Such eccentricities were not destined to last but a number of atheist temples were established – not only in Paris, Comte’s base, but in Rio de Janeiro, New York, Liverpool and London. In line with Comte’s creed, these were temples where disciples could worship the new supreme being – humanity. As far as I know, none of the buildings is used for religious purposes today, though the Brazilian church seems to have been active until late last century.

When he proposes building a temple for unbelievers, de Botton is reinventing a wheel that never really turned. The fad for atheist temples lasted for perhaps 60 years, while places of worship dedicated to something bigger than humanity have been around for thousands of years. There is a nice irony here. For all his loony notions, Comte was more intelligent than most of the atheists who came after him. He saw clearly that religion is an enduring human need that cannot be denied. Yet despite the formative influence it had on writers and philosophers such as George Eliot and John Stuart Mill, Comte’s religion of humanity disappeared, leaving hardly a trace.

Even if Comte’s church was ephemeral, he was right in predicting religion would not die out. The world is awash with formless religiosity . During most of the last century, politics was the principal vehicle for religion. Communism and the cult of the free market are examples of large, flimsy ideas being turned into articles of faith.

Today, faith is more often channelled through science. Not only the pseudo-science of crop circle enthusiasts and UFO cultists, but genuine advances in science and technology are being used to promote hopes and dreams that are quintessentially religious. People who believe the human mind can be uploaded into virtual space and so be immune to death are recycling the fantasies of 19thcentury spiritualists, who also argued their beliefs were based on science.

The very idea of a science-based religion is an absurdity. The value of religion is it points beyond anything that can be known by the methods of science, showing us a mystery would remain even if all could be explained.

Rather than trying to invent another religion surrogate, open-minded atheists should appreciate the genuine religions that exist already. Better spend the money that is being raised for the new temple on religious buildings that are in disrepair than waste it on a monument to a defunct version of unbelief.

Guardian News & Media

John Gray is a political philosopher. His latest book is The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Alain de Botton will discuss his new book, Religion For Atheists, at the Sydney Opera House on February 23.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald