What do atheists profess?

Charles Cowling

Posted by Richard Rawlinson, religious correspondent

 

Vale makes interesting points in the thread beneath my Beyond the Abyss post, which discusses the gap between secularist individuality and religious communal ritual:

We (I) believe that community and the communal celebration of key events is important – yet secularism, at least as it finds expression in the west today – tends to be individualistic. Not surprising, perhaps when the only common bond is a lack of belief.
My own feeling, though, is that we are in a transitional phase and will over time evolve new and meaningful rituals to reflect the reality of people’s sense of personal meaning and purpose.

At first these will ape the religious ceremonies we are familiar with – because they are the ones we know. But they will diverge and in time consolidate new norms, patterns and meanings.

Actually, look at any civil ceremonies, the start has already been made’.

I’m trying to be open but find it hard to imagine meaningful death rituals devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife. I agree that non-religious funerals help bring comfort and closure, but wouldn’t a truly atheist ritual do this while professing the faith that God and souls don’t exist? Would it not be crucial to celebrate the fact that the deceased, however fondly remembered, is now nothing, incapable of pleasure or pain?

Some political and intellectual atheists can cope with such a nihilistic philosophy, but we seem some way from popular demand for rituals reflecting such secular realities.

Some stats…

Each year, around 500,000 people in the UK die, according the annual mortality statistics published by the Office for National Statistics. Over 30,000 funerals a year are currently non-religious, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors. This is around 6 per cent of deaths, or over one in 20 households affected by death.

This figure is increasing as families turn to celebration-of-life ceremonies rather than services conducted by a priest, either in church or crematorium. There’s certainly a growing willingness to admit non-belief, encouraged by secular educationalists, politicians and media pundits.

Of the four in 10 Brits who claim membership of the Church of England, it’s clear many are secularists, who increasingly see hypocrisy in using their church simply for baptisms, weddings, funerals and the Christmas carol service.

The NAFD has confirmed that most of those choosing non-religious funerals were ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ Protestants. Lapsed Catholics remain more likely to uphold the ceremonial traditions of their forefathers, hedging their bets, so to speak. This is borne out by weekly Mass attendance figures among the genuinely faithful – for the first time in the UK, CofE and Catholic attendance is neck and neck, each attracting between 800,000 and 1m a week, even though the starting pool of Catholics is smaller than those claiming to be culturally CofE.

But just as there are people of half-baked religious faith, so there are ‘atheist-lites’ for whom the fond belief in some sort of afterlife prevents them from totally parting ways with religion-inspired ceremonial.

Funeral direction

The muddled masses are only likely to reach clarity on one side or the other by authoritative guidance. In a nutshell, they need to be evangelised by fundamentalists, not in the nutty Creationist or Islamofacist sense but in the sense of inspirational leaders persuading others of their creed, be it religious or godless.

This is where the problem lies for anyone trying to devise new rituals devoid of quasi-religious elements. In the case of civil funeral celebrants, it doesn’t matter if they settle for a client-driven compromise. Who really cares if high priest of atheism Richard Dawkins disapproves of them perpetuating religious rituals? After all, he’s a biologist, not a philosopher or social worker, and, even then, considered a sloppy intellect by most of his academic peers.

In the case of priests, their vows in the Sacrament of Holy Orders mean they must serve God and the faithful of His Church by obeying and teaching God’s laws, handed down by the Holy Bible and Apostolic Tradition – the Mass with its divine liturgy and rituals as the focal point.

It’s at this point that Catholics must briefly digress – yes, there are priests who attempt sacrilegious ministry, and, of course, a minority who have committed vile crimes in the eyes of secular law, as well as mortal sins against God. But the point I’m making is that the way forward for the Church is not the same as for secular ritualists: a priest who dons layman’s attire for a civil funeral should be defrocked; a civil celebrant’s a la carte service, complete with religious appetiser, offers choice.

As Gloriamundi makes clear in his/her recent blog, ‘What You Need to be a Celebrant’, such choice forms a compassionate collaboration between celebrant and the bereaved. By the same token, the Church is being compassionate and indeed true by being relatively inflexible, as touched on in my post, ‘Individuality in the Requiem Mass?’.

True atheists and theists are dogmatic, not pragmatic. They are not relativists as they believe in orthodoxies: that we are just physical beings, or that our mortal bodies are vessels for eternal souls, saved by the grace of God.

Some religions do indeed seem to be committing slow suicide, but there are also fresh buds, a growing hunger for reverence among many younger Christians. In a parallel world, generations are growing up not even as cultural Christians, meaning they’re less likely to behave as their grandparents would have done when confronted by death.

But this seems more social consequence than conscious movement: has the average person really embraced the belief that a world without religion would be a better place, even if they do prefer living in the moment and banishing thoughts of life after death?

Apathy has wounded religion but a creed that denies belief cannot equal it, certainly not communally. True atheist diehards (die-easies?) will never replace religion as you have to fill a void with something, not nothing.

‘Teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen’. (Matthew 28:20)

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sweetpeaRichard RawlinsoncharlesJon UnderwoodThe Good Funeral Guide – We’d all be better off if we stopped believing in belief Recent comment authors

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sweetpea
Guest
sweetpea

The last time I saw Sweetpea spelt as Sweatpea was in a rather lacklustre flower display at Morrisons….are you trying to tell me something, Richard?

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

I know, I know, I’m insatiable. But this is relevant to the above. Research reveals that America is drifting from clearly defined religious denominations to faiths cut to fit personal preferences. ‘We are a designer society,’ says religion statistics expert George Barna in his new book, Futurecast. ‘We want everything customised to our personal needs.’ However, while church attendance, except for weddings and funerals, is dropping, his research discovered, perhaps ironically, that more people claim they have accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour. Barna blames individualised faith on the churches for offering boring services. I’m not sure if he’s calling… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

It was illuminating. Thanks, Rupert, GM, Jon, Charles and Sweatpea. Shame Vale, the instigator, was away. I know it’s quality, not quantity, but we might have had 40 comments, not 30! Next…

Jon Underwood
Guest

Great stuff, thanks Richard. Theres a phd in there for somebody!

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[…] between the GFG religious correspondent, various unbelievers and a handful of don’t-knows [here] it was gripping this morning to sip tea in bed and listen to John Gray arguing that […]

gloria mundi
Guest

Well, Richard, that’s a pretty impressive summary, I reckon, on a quick read! Thanks.
Did you catch “Point of View” on Radio 4 Friday and this a.m.? Should interest you and others in this thread.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

So is this it? To summarise, one contributor distinguishes between Christ’s teaching and its interpretation by the Church, or the major Christian denominations. While some organised religion is reviled, its roots, in their purest form as a force for good, are not necessarily rejected. While some atheists are indeed hostile to the very concept of faith in God, others welcome the flowering of new religions in the hope that they might one day better convey a positive message for the benefit of mankind. Liberation Theology is offered in way of an alternative. I would add there are also some 30,000… Read more »

Jon Underwood
Guest

Hi Richard

Instinctively I wouldn’t differentiate between religious institutions and the general public. Though based on the teachings of supra-normal beings they were set up by and now consist entirely of people like you and me, no? They are a societal creation, which can be seen by the way they change across cultures and times. This makes them more not less great in my eyes.

CofE reference lost on me I’m afraid 🙂

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

” I have great faith in the wisdom of the general public and would imagine that in time the great religious institutions will adapt their forms to accommodate what people want”.

How can you call religious institutions great if you clearly don’t think they’re as great as the ‘general public’. You sound so very CofE.

Jon Underwood
Guest

Hello again. Just wanted to make a couple of points in relation to the above discussion of Buddhism. @ Richard – I’ve no problem with Buddhism being described as a philosophy as opposed to a religion, but would question whether it is accurate to describe it as passive. From my perspective following a Buddhist path involves a hell of a lot of graft! Whether this is the best use of energy is open to question, but active engagement in both spiritual and material domains is certainly required. @ GM. Yes, Buddhism has a lot of metaphysics that can’t be proven… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

I think many a Buddhist would say that it was not just a philosophy, not that I am suggesting that there is anything ignoble or lacking if it were, but that it has many of the attributes we generally associate with a religion – particularly Mahayana Buddhism of the Dalai Lama sort. It believes there are supernatural powers, i.e. inexplicable to scientific method and enquiry and to sensory identification: a human soul or spirit, reincarnation; it has regular rituals to mark the passing of the spirit to another place or plane; it has a body of dogma it regards as… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Sorry if I sounded defensive. I was at work and just fired off a quick reply. Context is all with such quotes. But to answer your latest question, I don’t tend to blame the religions themselves for man’s crimes carried out in the name of creeds: Muslim (9/11), Israeli Jews (Palestine), Christian (Crusades/Ireland), Atheism (Communist genocide) etc. True religions are about God’s love and.man’s welfare (peace, respect etc). True humanism is also about ethics. Man’s capacity to sin is the antithesis: greed, power, racism etc. However, there is a difference between religion and philosophy (Buddhism is a passive philosophy so… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Oh dear oh dear. The comic was referring to the current struggles between elements of the largely Christian USA and its less Christian allies, and Islamic nations or elements within them (the “War On Terror,” the “Axis of Evil”) and also the agnosingly circular strife between Israel and the Palestinians. Now such strife may be about oil, it may be about territory, it may be about resisting hegemony, but the leaders of the parties concerned also foreground their religious beliefs, I think you’d agree, Bush in one way, bin Laden in another, the Israeli right in different ways. I really… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

”When the three great monotheistic religions have finished their game, can we have our planet back please?”

Not troll-like because you’re on your home turf. If you crashed a religious blog with such a fatuous comment, it might be troll-like. Clearly, you can’t blame religion for eco-problems or recent wars. Billions were killed under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. They were all atheists but I would never ever blame atheists in general for such evils, and I’d expects atheists to have a reality check when noting religious influences, both for better or worse.

gloria mundi
Guest

Sorry – my last comment here – that should read (faith is surely) “A set of convictions that are outside the possibility of proof.” There’s a Radio 4 prog tomorrow evening 20:15, or 50, sorry, have to check it, which is going to argue that the faith vs not-faith argument is beside the point for most of the world’s faith followers, because for them, more important is ritual, cultural context, and many other features of religion than faith itself. Dorothy Rowe, I seem to remember, says that why a person believes what they believe is more important than what the… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

One of the most common English nouns is ‘time’. And the word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.

Rupert Callender
Guest

Ooh, this is good stuff innit?
Just been to our first, and probably our last networking breakfast. I was last of four people to be given a two minute interview. When asked to give my final thoughts on death to the assembled financial advisors, marketing folk etc I said. “It’s later than you think.” Stunned silence. Well, ask a silly question.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Ru and GM

I acknowledge your experience of varying levels of preoccupation in an afterlife (‘most secular funerals aren’t as preoccupied with an afterlife as you think’). This ‘ecumenical’ dialogue is useful: we agree to disagree but seek to understand without troll-like outright dismissal. Our common ground is the value of goodness, with one side believing in the importance of loving God and neighbour, the other side believing in loving neighbour. Too often, even this difference leads to difficulties comprehending the concept of love resulting from laws: obedience does not lead to love but love does lead to obedience etc.

Jon Underwood
Guest

Really enjoying this debate. Even as a religious subscriber I find myself more drawn to the secularists’ arguments. Am reminded of the Dalai Lama’s words “Religions must serve people, not the other way around.”

gloria mundi
Guest

Ru smacks the old nail bang on the head as so often. And Richard, seems to me we are never, ever, likely to be able to prove or disprove the existence of an after-life, because it is a category beyond the usual groundwork of hypothesis and proof. That’s surely what the word “faith” means? A set of convictions that are outside the possibility of belif? Even the much-reviled Dawkins says there is probably, or almost certainly, no God. And BTW, although he sneers pointlessly and unpleaantly at, rather than merely arguing against, other people’s beliefs and hypotheses, I don’t know… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

Richard, I think you’re missing that most secular funerals aren’t as preoccupied with an afterlife as you think. That’s your department. What a good secular and a good religious funeral should bring sharply into focus, is the notion of love and the importance of its centrality to our lives. You think this comes from god, we don’t. It’s a bit like arguing the virtues of a diesel car over a petrol one, while ignoring the distance covered.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Gloria mundi

I love your reply. You get where I’m coming from. No, I don’t want the ‘middle ground to disappear’ as I find it more sensitive to human nature than any militant BHA atheist manifesto, which I cannot see translating into ritual.

It’s natural many people are ‘muddled’ and hedge their bets as we can’t yet prove if there is or isn’t an afterlife. I do, however, think the possibility should be explored with an open mind, leaving options open is laudable.

Thank you.

gloria mundi
Guest

My my, Richard certainly does the old GFG comments rate a favour! The problem I have with a long string of comments is that it is tempting to try to round it all up and provide one big comment of one’s own – or to nip off a particular bit and work away at it. I’ll now fall for both these temptations! There is, it seems to me, a basic and irreconcilable difference between Richard’s view of the RC church as the true faith, and what he calls “consumer-driven ritual” i.e. people who want to include some sort reference to… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Sweetpea Faith isn’t ‘arrogance’ if you’re putting ego aside to humbly accept God’s teaching. My stand seems to niggle because I’m not giving you the answer you want but I didn’t evade answering when I said: ‘I believe in absolute truths, and don’t claim to be a relativist’. But this debate isn’t about my faith. Vale’s initial comment provoked thoughts on how a fundamentalist atheist would actually evangelise truly godless death ritual (he was replying to a previous blog about the atheist ritualists of the North Texas Church of Freethought). I deliberately posed this extreme scenario so that you and… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest

I’m with Sweetpea. I think all broadminded, tolerant people would agree that the requiem mass is an admirably well wrought, highly evolved, man-made (that is, confected) expression of a particular belief system. It may fail to make its mark on the intellect of an open-hearted dissenter, but it probably affords emotional emotional satisfaction — because we embrace what’s good for people on their terms, not our own. The mass comprehensively addresses the circumstances of the death of someone in terms of creed. In the words of Tom Lynch, it gets the dead where they need to go and the living… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

It’s not consistency, Richard, it’s stubbornness.

I sympathize with your plight – you can’t even bring yourself to consider for a moment looking around the lens, because it would feel like a betrayal of your lord and risk a distorted view that could trip you up and push you off the path.

But religion isn’t satnav. Have a look at the road.

sweetpea
Guest
sweetpea

Richard, I wonder that you thank me for my reply, when you pay so little attention to the argument put before you, but instead use the opportunity to expand and further sermonize on your own preoccupations. So, I’ll just reply to your first paragraph. You attempt to apply a smoke screen about the respectful way you might behave at a civil funeral, and your happy integration into the secular world of office and pub. This is a red herring in this discussion, since I did not refer to your attendance or behaviour at such an event, or imply a distance… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Glad to be consistent, Jonathan.

Jonathan, irreligious correspondent
Guest
Jonathan, irreligious correspondent

“would Christ promote abstention from sex outside of marriage, or would He condone promiscuity, contraception and abortion?”

You see what they mean, Richard? You’re doing it again.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Sweetpea, thanks for your reply. Yes, I see things through the lens of my own beliefs. Don’t you? I believe in absolute truths, and don’t claim to be a relativist. However you’d be wrong to conclude that I don’t treat with respect those who don’t share the faith. If I attended a civil funeral, I wouldn’t be wearing my blog hat at the reception. Here, I debate death from a faith perspective. But I also work in a secular office and drink in the pub with agnostic friends, so have plenty of enjoyable camaraderie with non-believers. But when debates between… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Rupert, I appreciate your comments. I mentioned Dawkins to illustrate his LACK of influence over free-thinking atheists who are not bound by leaders. Naturally, I disagree when you say the Catholic Church fails to represent Christ! 🙂 As for Liberationist Theology, it was a Marxist, semi-secular movement (sometimes involving gun-wielding priests) which emphasised the class struggle to the exclusion of the true Christian message. The Catholic Church remains the biggest charity in the world but she cannot condone a movement committed to encouraging the poor to despise the rich. Christ proclaims liberation in its deeper sense: liberation from sin. Attempts… Read more »

sweetpea
Guest
sweetpea

‘I’m trying to be open but find it hard to imagine meaningful death rituals devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife.’ Well, Richard, perhaps you should get out more. While claiming to be trying hard to imagine, you seem most intent on seeing other’s viewpoint only through the lens of your own beliefs. Maybe this is why you’re finding it so hard to imagine a ‘truly atheist ritual’ without an explicit statement of ‘belief’ in the non-existence of God and of the soul. But I think the truth about non-religious funerals is that many don’t express any religious or… Read more »

Rupert Callender
Guest

Firstly Richard, those of us who don’t consider ourselves Christian, though personally I always am drawn to the distinction the Quakers make between following the religion of Christ, not the one about Christ, the point the Pythons made so eloquently- is that we are most certainly not represented by one Richard Dawkins. I consider him a faith leader in the same vein as the Pope. I also would like to clarify this simplistic divide between religious and secular. I am not anti-religious, quite the opposite, I would like to see new religions flowering, one’s that borrow heavily from many traditions,… Read more »

Jonathan, irreligious correspondent
Guest
Jonathan, irreligious correspondent

“…to reach clarity on one side or the other…”

Er, I dunno Richard, there is no one side or the other for me, I just booted the ball and it was in the back of the net.