Humans hunger for the sacred. Why can’t the new atheists understand that?

Look at life under communism, and you’ll see why religion will never die

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

Does the world have a purpose? The new atheists regard the question as absurd. Purposes emerge in the course of evolution, they tell us; to suppose that they could exist before any organism can gain a reproductive advantage from possessing them is to unlearn the lesson of Darwin. With the theory of evolution firmly established, therefore, there is no room in the scientific worldview for an original purpose, and therefore no room for God.

Today’s evangelical atheists go further, and tell us that history has shown religion to be so toxic that we should do our best to extinguish it. Such writers describe the loss of religion as a moral gain — even though, for most ordinary believers, it looks like the loss of all that they most seriously value.

But maybe the atheists have misunderstood their target.

The ‘god of the philosophers’ — serene, omniscient, and outside space and time — has appeal to those who think in abstract terms. But ordinary people don’t think in abstract terms. They don’t see God as the answer to a cosmological question, since they don’t have cosmological questions. But they do have the question of how to live, and in the effort to live with others they often stumble upon moments, places, relationships and experiences that have a numinous character — as though removed from this world and in some way casting judgment upon it.

Hence there is another question, that seems to be much nearer to the heart of what we, in the western world, are now going through: what is the sacred, and why do people cling to it? Sacred things, Émile Durkheim once wrote, are ‘set aside and forbidden’. To touch them with profane hands is to wipe away their aura, so that they flutter to earth and die. To those who respect them, however, sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.

How do we understand this experience, and what does it tell us? It is tempting to look for an evolutionary explanation. After all, sacred things seem to include all those events that really matter to our genes — falling in love, marriage, childbirth, death. The sacred place is the place where vows are made and renewed, where suffering is embraced and accepted, and where the life of the tribe is endowed with an eternal significance. Humans with the benefit of this resource must surely withstand the storms of misfortune rather better than the plain-thinking individualists who compete with them. Look at the facts in the round and it seems likely that humans without a sense of the sacred would have died out long ago. For that same reason, the hope of the new atheists for a world without religion is probably as vain as the hope for a society without aggression or a world without death.

I prefer to put evolutionary explanations to one side, however, so as to consider, not the benefit that sacredness confers on our genes, but the transformation it effects in our perceptions. A person with a sense of the sacred can lead a consecrated life, which is to say a life that is received and offered as a gift. An intimation of this is contained in our relations with those who are dear to us. There is a treasure-house of poetry devoted to the word ‘you’, and it records the human need to be absorbed by someone else, to see you as calling to me from beyond the sensory horizon. This experience is not accessible to scientific inquiry. It depends upon concepts, like freedom, responsibility and the self, that have no place in the language of science. The very idea of ‘you’ escapes the net of explanation.

Atheists dismiss that kind of argument. They tell us that the ‘self’ is an illusion, and that the human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal, just as law is ‘nothing but’ relations of social power, sexual love ‘nothing but’ the procreative urge and the Mona Lisa ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas. Getting rid of what Mary Midgley calls ‘nothing buttery’ is, to my mind, the true goal of philosophy. And if we get rid of it when dealing with the small things — sex, pictures, people — we might get rid of it when dealing with the large things too: notably, when dealing with the world as a whole. And then we might conclude that it is just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of nature, as physics describes it, as to say that the Mona Lisa is nothing but a smear of pigments. Drawing that conclusion is the first step towards understanding why and how we live in a world of sacred things.

Nothing brought this home to me more vividly than the experience of communism, in places where there was no other recourse against the surrounding inhumanity than the life of prayer. Communism made the scientific worldview into the foundation of social order: people were regarded as ‘nothing but’ the assembled mass of their instincts and needs. Its aim was to replace social life with a cold calculation for survival, so that people would live as competing atoms, in a condition of absolute enmity and distrust. Anything else would jeopardise the party’s control. In such circumstances people lived in a world of secrets, where it was dangerous to reveal things, and where every secret that was peeled away from the other person revealed another secret beneath it.

Nevertheless the victims of communism tried to hold on to the things that were sacred to them, and which spoke to them of the free and responsible life. The family was sacred; so too was religion, whether Christian or Jewish. So too was the underground store of knowledge — the forbidden knowledge of the nation’s history and its claim to their loyalty. Those were the things that people would not exchange or relinquish even when required by the party to betray them. They were the consecrated treasures, hidden below the desecrated cities, where they glowed more brightly in the dark. Thus there grew an underground world of freedom and truth, where it was no longer necessary, as Havel put it, ‘to live within the lie’.

Recently I assembled some of my impressions of that world, and the result is Notes from Underground, a novel set in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, which explores love between two young people who stumble over each other in the catacombs, and who, in the ambient twilight, find the meaning that the system had tried to wipe away. We live today in the glare of affluence, and cannot easily discern sacred things, which glow more clearly in darkness. But we need the sacred as much as the young people of my story. One way to understand this is to look back at that place where truth and trust were crimes and love a reckless departure from routine calculation. I can observe it now from a position of safety, and am glad that those times of fear have gone. But I also regret that they are fading from our collective memory and that their lesson has still to be learned.

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