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’.


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