Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Against Agape (Restaurants) and All That

Writing in the Spectator, A.N. Wilson, a former atheist, responds to de Botton:

De Botton has little chance of success — either in starting a chain of Agape restaurants, or in persuading bigots on either side of this argument. Meanwhile, very many people who already attend church, synagogue or temple will do so, as has presumably always been the case, in many varied states of mind, which have included that of total unbelief.

It is a sad story, because, between the end of the Victorian age and the 1960s, it really looked as if there was a chance for Christianity, at least, to absorb, and accept, the fact that many people who had discarded the old ways of believing, yet saw the point of a liturgical year, punctuated by ritual observances; they also saw the point of old ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage and death. De Botton, in his attractive comments about Yom Kippur, regrets the fact that secularists do not have a time of year when they can all acknowledge the faults of the past year and try to patch up quarrels — but surely they do: it is the post-Dickensian observance of Christmas. Many who realise the extreme historical unlikelihood of Jesus having been to Bethlehem, let alone having been born there to the accompaniment of angel choirs, see the point of Scrooge’s conversion.


It must always have been the case, in all religions, that there was an enormous difference of belief among the adherents. In pre-Christian times, as you went through the Roman year as chronicled in Ovid’s Fasti, there would have been Epicurean atheists and Platonist worshippers of the Good and those who did not think about such matters, all offering incense at the same altars. The same was probably true of churches and synagogues and temples throughout the world.

Over a century ago, within the Church of England, figures such as Dean Stanley were propounding a position very similar to the one recommended in this book. The Catholic Modernists went further in their rejection of the old mythology. But Pope Pius X ruthlessly stamped them out and the sad fact is that, in all attempts since to explore this kind of territory, churches have reacted in a paranoid and intolerant manner…

Don Cupitt, the former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge ‘came out’ as an actual atheist decades ago, and there was the Death of God school of theology in America, but they did not do much to win a following in those churches which preferred to hunker down behind orthodox stockades. Quite why this is so is for sociologists and psychiatrists to explore. The ‘modern’ phenomenon is not, actually, the apparently radical idea expressed by de Botton. Historically speaking, the modern idea is that religious rites should only be permitted to those prepared to jump through certain intellectual hoops as an entrance requirement.

As soon as the churches began to introduce that Visa control, they guaranteed that they would lose millions of adherents. As de Botton shows in chapter after chapter, it is natural for human beings to follow ritual observances. The intolerance and stupidity of the churches were as much to blame for such people being cut adrift as were the dogmatic atheists, with their fifth-form debating club ‘arguments’ about whether God ‘exists’.




  • mark e. · February 21, 2012 at 6:48 am

    Wilson’s view is a very common one (extremely common within Anglicanism) but it’s a view I have never fully understood or sympathized with. It involves treating (a version of) Christianity as if it were like, say, the Roman state religion – a bit of a stretch. Of course one recognizes that not everyone in the church believes the same things, but unless they believe in a spiritual realm in some sense, I just don’t get why they are there. The word hypocrisy comes to mind (but I guess that just shows my Puritan streak).

  • Mike Shupp · February 21, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Oh, I dunno. Look at the Republican Congressmen who thought Mitt Romney’s health care ideas were worth bragging about until Barak Obama decided to use them in his health care program — at which point they became the very spawn of the devil. Think of all the politicians who stand up boldly to tell their constituents a) Global warming is a myth devised by criminal scientists, b) Darwinian evolution is unproven and if taught in public schools, this should be “balanced” by creationalist accounts, and c) America needs more scientists and engineers and we should take all steps to encourage youngsters to pursue STEM careers. Think of the importance of sport –especially, professional sports –in our everyday lives. Think of the Superbowl. Think of the importance of the sacred Superbowl halftime show, and the attention we give to Superbowl ads. Think of those voters who are still hypnotised by the burning issues of whether Obama is a Christian or a Moslem, or even whether he was born in America, or even could be an American since his father wasn’t.

    IOW, rite and ritual are pretty well built into the typical American’s mental operating system in the year 2012. We aren’t THAT different from Romans of the Republic cutting oxen apart on the Senate steps to examine the entrails each New Year, we might not be that far from the Aztec crowds gathered at the base of sacred pyramids watching as human hearts were flung into braziers — while bodies rolled down the steps to butchers’ wagons. We might not be all that different from AN Wilson and his ungodly Anglican hierophants.

  • Polichinello · February 21, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Wow, Mike, that’s a lot of irrelevant 888.

    Anyhoo, in the OP Wilson writes:

    Historically speaking, the modern idea is that religious rites should only be permitted to those prepared to jump through certain intellectual hoops as an entrance requirement.

    This is why no one takes liberal Christians very seriously. The idea that the Christian faith only recently–in modern times–took belief seriously is laughably dishonest. You have disputes about what Christians should believe in the New Testament itself. Paul was pretty clear on this point, too. He said if Christ wasn’t crucified and resurrected, than all the preaching and writing he did was in vain; it’s worthless.

    The liberal Christian groups have followed Wilson’s advice. They’ve long since given up on any serious belief, and let’s look at where their memberships have gone: through the floor. Lord knows, I don’t want to waste my Sunday morning getting hectored by some miserable lesbian in vestments for the sake of some theology I don’t even buy into.

    If Wilson wants to hold onto the forms of Christianity but dispense with the belief, fine, but at least recognize that this is a radical break with all of Christian history. It is a revolution, and it will not be welcomed as an improvement by those who will be dispossessed.

  • Jeeves · February 22, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Even from the distance of a non-believer, I wondered at the time why the Latin Mass was discarded. I’ve always assumed it was in the name of Relevancy, more butts in the pews. Is that wrong?

    This puzzled me:

    The intolerance and stupidity of the churches were as much to blame for such people being cut adrift as were the dogmatic atheists, with their fifth-form debating club ‘arguments’ about whether God ‘exists’.

    How much did “dogmatic” atheists have to do with people being cut adrift? Very little, in my experience–but then I don’t remember adolescent debates about whether God exists. Must have missed something.



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