Bodies are a big business. Susie Orbach

One Nation, Without God

Atheism can’t and won’t replace religious rituals. But that’s not what most atheists want anyway.

Religion is the force that brings man’s worldly existence in tune with the rhythm of the universe. The focus of religion is the transcendental whole and not the particularities of human existences. Over the course of centuries, religion has thus developed a monopoly over the rites and rituals of human communities. We’re quite keen to peek over the horizon, to glimpse the transcendental. Religion has provided us with the rituals that bridge the gap between human experience and whatever lies beyond it. It encompasses all periods of life: Birth, adolescence, old age, and death.

Religious rituals draw their strength from their recurrent nature. Early religions celebrated astronomical holidays like solstices and seasonal events like the beginning of the new year. We can trust that these holidays will be celebrated again and again. Yet the predictability of rituals has always stood in contrast to the chaos of human life: Our existence is marked by unexpected encounters and new developments that can neither be computed nor predicted.

Unpredictability breeds fear, and rituals offer a sense of comfort through routine. Seemingly chaotic events are recast as manifestations of a higher order – “on earth and in heaven,” as the saying goes – and thus rendered intelligible. They say to us: “There’s a purpose to randomness, even if our humble mind cannot fully discern it.”

The three guises of modern atheism

In recent decades, religious faith has increasingly been replaced by atheism. An ever-increasing number of people self-identify as “non-religious”, and we must ask whether atheism can develop its own rituals to compensate for the loss of religious traditions.

In the West, atheism appears in three different guises: The first guise is an outright rejection of the God of the Bible: Atheists doubt that God created the world and guides its fate from the outside. This particular kind of atheism is rooted in theoretical and philosophical questions: If God is a superior being outside this world, the coming-into-existence of the world placed limits on His existence – a paradox, because God has no limits. Atheists point out tensions and contradictions within religious ideology.

The second guise of atheism doesn’t reject God but the institutional structures of the Church. Atheists in this category might say: “Jesus was the first true atheist. He took a stand against the culture of worshipping in Jerusalem and against the religious orthodoxy of his time.” Criticism of the Church can emerge from within ecclesiastical institutions, or it can come from the outside.

The third guise of atheism in the West is marked by an unwillingness to engage with religious ideas in the public sphere. The roots of this trend lie in the culture of modernity, which often criticizes (consciously or not) the traditions of the Church. Discussions of religion are aborted with reference to the violent history of Christianity, to the dogmatism of the Church, and to its undemocratic structures. This particular strand of criticism has been with us at least since the 19th century. During the Industrial Revolution, the working class switched from the gospel of Christ to the gospel of Marx.

Of the three guises, the third one is most prominent today. Many people who formally belong to one of the Christian churches have long abandoned religion in spirit and practice. Additionally, industrial society has given rise to a welfare state which now fulfills many of the social functions that were historically within the domain of the Church: tending the sick, or caring for the elderly. But can atheism fully embrace the role that Christianity used to play in society? Can atheism give rise to rituals that link our particular existences to the transcendental whole?

Take the French Revolution, the first overtly political atheist movement in modern times: The revolution not only wiped out old traditions but also spawned new rituals. Yet for the most part, these new rituals failed to catch on. For example, the revolutionaries tried unsuccessfully to introduce a new calendar in France. The project was doomed to fail because politicians and rulers cannot dictate the emergence of rituals. Religious rituals grew over the course of millennia; their age helps to explain their pervasiveness. They help us to make sense of our time, but they aren’t of our time.

Atheists would be hard-pressed to develop credible alternatives to the celebration of religious holidays like Christmas. In East Germany during the Cold War, the socialist party tried and failed. Their only success was the establishment of a “youth consecration” ritual that replaced religious confirmation rites. (Indeed, the ritual outlived the Cold War and continues to hold sway in certain areas of Germany today.)

Political atheism’s impossible task

For the most part, atheism will fail to develop a political voice. Most people simply aren’t interested in a combative atheism. European history is peppered with wars that were fought over religious beliefs, and the modern response has been to sideline discussions about religion and to secularize political discourses. Previous generations openly committed themselves to Christianity – but the decline of religiosity will thus not result in open commitments to atheism in the political arena.

Atheists who want to fully replace religious rituals face an impossible task: Their rhythms would have to be as lasting as the rhythms of Christianity. Atheists would have to find a way to bridge the gap between cosmic timescales and universal history on one side and the individual and experiential horizon of everyday life on the other side – and they would have to make this bridge non-ephemeral and, thus, ritualistic.

But maybe atheists don’t mind. Their focus is a clear demarcation between religion and politics, and their agenda is the limiting of religious rhetoric in public discourse. Modern atheists care about politics, but they don’t seem to be too keen on nurturing new rituals.

Read more in this debate: Jan Kubis, Rex Tillerson, Jörg Friedrich.

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