Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is 'true'. Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.
I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one concludes that he evidently doesn't. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling - and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.
Here are five:
Religions are supremely effective at education, because they know that we forget everything. They are based around rehearsal, repetition, oratory and calendars. They create appointments for us to re-encounter the most significant ideas. Every day has a spiritual agenda. In the secular world, we think you can send someone to school or university for a few years and it will then stick with you for forty years. It won't. Our minds are like sieves, yet we unfairly associate repetition with being stifled. The Jewish or Catholic calendars are masterpieces of synchronisation: every day brings us back round to some important idea. You might need to repeat important truths 4 or 8 times a day.
Mind & Body
Religions remember we have bodies and therefore integrate their insights with physical practices. In Zen Buddhism, you don't just hear lectures: you have a tea ceremony where the drinking of a beverage underpins a philosophical lesson. In Judaism, you don't only atone, you do so by plunging yourself into a mikveh bath to 'cleanse yourself'. So religions appear to know that if you want to reach the mind, you have to acknowledge the overwhelming role that the body and emotions have over us.
The secular world isn't short of bars and restaurants, but we're singularly bad at any kind of regular way of turning strangers into friends. We know from parties that people don't talk to each other until there's a good host that does the introduction. Religions function as hosts: their buildings and rituals allow us to express a latent sociability which lies beneath our cold exteriors. Moreover, unlike Facebook, they don't introduce us only to people with whom we already have much in common. At their best moments, they confront us with The Other, and help to show that there is humanity in all of us.
Art and Museums
Christianity never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution (i.e. Titian). Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: 'Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like'. 'Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage'. 'Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar'. The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself as a piece of art. Instead of refuting instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.
This leads to a suggestion: what if modern museums of art kept in mind the example of the didactic function of Christian art, in order once in a while to reframe how they presented their collections? Would it ruin a Rothko to highlight for an audience the function that Rothko himself declared that he hoped his art would have: that of allowing the viewer a moment of communion around an echo of the suffering of our species?
Religions have shown a surprising degree of sympathy for our impulse to travel. They have accepted that we cannot achieve everything by staying at home. Nevertheless, unlike secularists, the religious have singularly failed to see the business of travelling as in any way straightforward or effortless. They have insisted with alien vigour on the profound gravity of going on a trip and have channelled the raw impulse to take off into a myriad of rituals, whose examination could prompt us to reflect on our own habits and sharply alter where and how we decided to travel next. We all want travel to change us, religions honour this wish properly.
Atheists need to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true. Many of the organizational solutions to the ills of the soul put forward by religions are open to being shorn of the supernatural structure in which they first emerged and still retain their value and interest. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural's greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
Follow Alain de Botton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@alaindebotton.