Godless Religion: What Atheism Can Learn From the Church

We all desire to belong. Whether it’s to a group of friends or to something bigger than ourselves, we desire a place where we can connect with people and celebrate life and beauty and find meaning. Have you heard of the Sunday Assembly? It’s an atheist church with multiple locations around the world, complete with its own synods and now (in the true spirit of religion) even its own schisms!

Undoubtedly, they have been inspired by Alain de Botton, a Swiss writer and philosopher. He wrote a book called Religion for Atheists, in which he argues that those who do not believe in God can still benefit from what he believes to be the essence of religion. Religion, he implies, isn’t about God. It’s about structure.

As de Botton remarked in an interview, “I am deeply interested in the way that religions are in the end institutions, giant machines, organizations, directed to managing our inner life. … I don’t believe in the doctrines of religion, but I love Christmas carols.” And who doesn’t love the nostalgia of Christmas carols?

What’s interesting is that de Botton recognizes that all religions are attempting to resolve how humanity is “just holding it together.” He not only recognizes this, but he affirms it. He suggests that Atheism 2.0 needs to emerge, an atheism that moves past conveying information to informing conduct by modeling religious repetition.

Those who are nonreligious should arrange time to hear moralistic lessons, synchronize encounters, set up rituals around important feelings, connect physical actions that back up philosophical ideas, and enjoy art that propagates what to love and what to hate. All of this, in theory, should help us move past “just holding it together” to a place of greater flourishing in all that is good and fair. This is de Botton’s vision of a godless religion. And a number of people seem to agree: Various atheist churches like Sunday Assembly are popping up around the world.

This baffles me.

I’m not sure that I would applaud de Botton’s suggestion.

It sounds exhausting.

Essentially, de Botton recognizes that people are a mess. His solution? Moralism. In other words, make a better attempt to change yourself by submitting to more rules, regulations and rituals. It is up to you to take control of your life, to become something better than what you are. Just try harder.

What really bothers me about de Botton’s theory, however, is that it sounds far too familiar. There are so many forms of Christianity that have nothing to do with Jesus but just perpetuate the giant machine of religion. It’s more about the things we do than the God we worship. Often the church itself can be guilty of resembling the “Sunday Assembly,” or a social club to help establish oneself as “a good person.” 

At its worst, it can become empty forms and rituals of pseudo-piety rather than a love affair with the living God. Without this connection, belief often becomes hollow. We can claim to hold certain beliefs that never alter our lives at all. Just like the husband and wife who no longer speak but only go through the motions of marriage, the rhythm of our Christian walk can become mere ritual with no life or vibrancy. But nonetheless, we continue with the motions because “that’s what Christians do.” It can easily become de Botton’s Atheism 2.0.

The church has more to offer than structures and rituals. We may still have a life lesson or two to offer the now schisming Sunday Assembly. “Been there. Done that!” says the church. But aside from advice on the church fracturing, what else can we offer? Well, for starters, we know from thousands of years of experience that moralism simply doesn’t work. When you subtract God from religion—intentionally or unintentionally—it becomes a wasteland. It is utter barrenness. And it makes us tired and hard and skeptical. Our hearts are left longing for substance and we’re stuck with a cheap veneer that hardly covers up that we’re all “just holding it together.” 

This may be a form of religion, but it is a false religion.

False religion is all about us. It’s about utility and functionality, or as de Botton says, it’s a “giant machine” that helps in our socialization. Ultimately, godless religion has to have a center, and what can we place there if not ourselves, our duties and our obligations? It’s about carving out our place and building up our value through our efforts. We remain at the center of our existence. We end up worshipping ourselves.

True religion is not about us. It’s about God. It’s not about what we do, but about what has been done for us. It’s not about good advice, but good news. At its very essence, it recognizes that we are broken and that we are even worse than we can imagine. Within all of Christianity’s rituals and rhythms, liturgies and structures, is the story of Jesus Christ, a story that de-centers humanity and offers a Savior to all those who are “just holding it together.” 

Christianity offers us the glorious unexpected, intimacy and forgiveness with God through the body of Jesus Christ, naked, broken and crucified for our sake. Paradoxically, it’s through Christ’s broken body and shed blood that our sins are forgiven and our lives are made whole. Christianity is never about what we can do. It is solely about Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. It’s about a profound, experiential relationship with a living Saviour. 

So while everyone really does love Christmas carols, we don’t need them because they’re fun to sing but because they proclaim that Jesus alone has the power to change a human soul. If this isn’t true, then church is a waste of time. If it is true, then only the church that keeps Jesus at the center is ultimately worthwhile.

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Alastair Sterne
Alastair was born and raised in Victoria, BC. He spent seven years in design and advertising, his work has been featured in magazines such as HOW, CMYK, Applied Arts, and Graphix. After a dramatic calling to missional living, he began and completed his Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, while working as a minister at Summit Church. After three years of prayer and preparing their hearts, Alastair and his wife, Julia, were formally assessed for church planting by The Grace Network and Church Planting BC in Vancouver, BC. They were given a full recommendation to begin church planting and partnered with Church Planting BC as their regional network. They now live in Vancouver and are at work fulfilling God's call for them there. They blog together at St. Peters Fireside.