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. Let’s be serious here: theology is one thing, food another altogether. I also have to congratulate them on their ingenuity in introducing power-point presentations, the only phenomenon thus far known to science capable of rivalling sermons for sleep-inducing properties. There is, I seem to recall, a Swiss political party whose entire platform consists of a pledge to ban power-point presentations.
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.”
Comte devised a religion of humanity with its own system of beliefs and rituals, its own priests and pontiff, liturgy, sacraments and temples. It had its own holy trinity (humanity, the earth and destiny), its own calendar (thirteen months of twenty-eight days each) and its own 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 its former devotees, among them Andre Gide and Arthur Koestler, as “the god that failed.” But nineteenth 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 become the churches of the future. Hegel said that for modern man, reading the daily paper had taken the place of morning prayer. Emil Durkheim, the great sociologist of religion, thought that trade unions might substitute for congregations of the faithful. Freudian psychoanalysis was a secular equivalent of confession to a priest, a non-religious way of healing the soul.
The twenty-first century has discovered altogether 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. Texting has become the new ritual, and killer apps the new promise of salvation.
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.
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.