For some considerable time now, we’ve seen a strong and at times fierce, divide between religion and atheism in UK society. Gladiators from both sides have slugged it out in public debate ; adverts have been posted on London buses proclaiming either that there is, or that there isn’t a God ; books challenging belief in God have sold by the million. In this divided society, individual churches can often thrive, but in total they represent a very small fraction of the population, much of which is indifferent, or simply atheist. The confrontational argument has subsided, but it’s left a stand-off. Is it now a permanent fracture line? And if so, how do we achieve any social cohesion between such conflicting views?
We could ask whether the two views are in fact necessarily so diametrically opposed? At first it seems they must be ; one side believes in God, and the other side doesn’t. If religion is defined as claims about truth, and presented as doctrines which have to be believed, then the argument with atheism may indeed be irreconcilable. Church, temple and mosque – and society – may have nothing to say to each other, and simply withdraw to their own corners. But religion can be interpreted differently, can offer more value, and become more inclusive. This is the interpretation of religion as myth. Not myth meaning empty untrue stories, but myth generating meaning reflecting on the big issues we face. All societies have their mythology, the ancient Greeks famously so. They are usually presented as value stories or morality plays, such as Hinduism’s wondrous myth of Ram and Sita, where a lover goes to any extremes to rescue the beloved. Christianity has great myth content too. Christ’s dialogue is full of stories and parables with moral meaning, challenging human behaviour. Grand themes of justice, the eternal struggle of sibling rivalry, the nature of the virtues, of forgiveness, and of love are all played out. No doctrinal belief is required. Not even in God, since for the atheist, these virtues themselves can define what is divine.
Atheism does not rule out spirituality. It simply defines that spirituality to be a human enterprise. It’s notable that in France, the best selling book on these issues is not one arguing against God, but a book by an atheist philosopher at the Sorbonne, André Comte-Sponville, who writes elsewhere on this site, called ‘A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues’, in which he argues, not against anything, but in favour of the virtues. The virtues become god. Perhaps here we have a synthesis with great potential for a more common understanding – one which every society needs for its cohesion.