Simon Jenkins: Godless places
Twitter has plenty of parody accounts, where people posing as Prince Charles or Pippa Middleton share their inappropriate thoughts. One of the most interesting at the moment is the KimKierkegaardashian account. It’s a satire on the empty celeb lifestyle of Kim Kardashian, a reality TV star whose career has predictably oozed over into clothing and perfume collections.
The tweets mangle the star’s vacant posts with the philosophical observations of gloomy Dane Søren Kierkegaard. This produces gems such as: “I love facial treatments. While one’s immortal soul is disintegrating, they make you feel rejuvenated and refreshed.”
It used to be that the empty lifestyles of the rich and famous were attacked from pulpits, but these days, philosophy is taking on the job. In fact, philosophy and the social sciences are currently making a very credible bid for the religious franchise as a whole.
This has been happening for a while at the School of Life, which offers classes, speakers, books and even Sunday sermons designed to help people live wisely and well. The Sunday sermon preachers have included Ruby Wax on the ego, Terry Eagleton on evil and Susan Greenfield on storytelling. The “service” in which the sermon is given is resolutely secular and includes pop-song hymns, tea served at the back afterwards, and even a pantomime devil who invites you to confess your sins.
The school was part-founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, whose book, Religion for Atheists, expounded the value of faith. According to de Botton, the religions are powerfully attractive, providing community, morality, art, education and consolation in the face of death. The only trouble is: “They are not true in any God-given sense.” He proposes plundering the religions for their priceless human value while discarding their worthless supernatural content.
After the Dawkins years, in which believers were told they were deluded and their faith was a mental illness, this nuanced approach to religion seemed at first glance like a good thing. It was refreshing to hear de Botton being so nice about religion, even if it was the kind of compliment a thief would offer before stealing your wallet.
It took the comedians, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones (interviewed on page 14), to show what de Botton’s idea could look like in actual, church-like communities which had no God to worship. I was there for the first service of the Sunday Assembly at a deconsecrated church in January, which included songs, notices, the collection, a sermon, quiet reflection, large amounts of very good comedy, lashings of strong tea – and a congregation of 250 who had to queue up before they could get in the door.
I came away recognising de Botton’s point that in our experience of church – any church – a good percentage is simply human: seeing friends, listening to a talk, singing together, drinking cups of tea. At the same time, I missed the focus on God which is the centre of gravity of Christian church, and wondered whether the Sunday Assembly could hold itself together without that.
It seems that so far, it can. What started as an experiment in local community is now a movement on several continents with a growing number of congregations. I think this has happened because far from mocking religion, or even being vaguely anti-God, the Sunday Assembly has focused its energies on being attractively positive.
Says Sanderson Jones: “Not believing in God is not why my heart frequently wants to beat out of my chest, and my breath gets short, as I contemplate the sheer wonder of being alive.”
Our journey with atheism over the past decade has felt like the fable of the wind and the sun. The wind of the new atheists attempted to rip the coat off the traveller’s back. But the sun of the Sunday Assembly persuaded the traveller he was too hot and needed to take his coat off.
Which is the greater threat to faith: mockery or gentle persuasion?
The question is hard to answer, because what persuasion has actually produced is deeply human. It has created communities of people who want to talk and reflect on life and its meaning. They just don’t want God to be part of it. And that is the start of a much more interesting conversation than we ever had with the New Atheists.
This article was published in the November edition of Reform
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