With 30.1% of Australians identifying as non-religious in the 2016 Census, the rise of secularity is apparent. This raises various questions and possibilities, which I concede I have very few answers for. Yet I cannot help but ponder on the ideas raised by Alain de Botton in his book, Religion for Atheists, on how beneficial a secular belief system in the modern day could be.
For a long time, I have found myself drawn to the merits of religion, despite growing up in a secular household. My trips overseas often find me (as with many others) in awe of the cathedrals, shrines and temples of the region's dominant religion. There is a sense of misplaced nostalgia that arises as I walk among the stained glass windows of a Catholic church, or under the Shinto gate into a Japanese temple. Perhaps the values that are positively associated with these ideologies draw us to them. Their ability to quell the insecurities and uncertainties of our lives can, at times, be tantalising to secular individuals. This is even more evident in times of great distress and hurt. I’m not alone in these sentiments either. This void that many people feel is what some theists may label ‘the absence of God’. Being the atheist I am, however, I can’t help but agree with de Botton on the point that what this gap is, in fact, negligence from our modern, secular society.
As de Botton states, with a movement to a more secular society, religion was to be replaced by culture. Today that has sorely failed as an idea. In our modern day, our culture as it exists seems to value many consumeristic tendencies and distracting practices. The status anxiety of the 21st century pits us against one another to accumulate material goods and a higher salary, in the hopes of finding solace in our possessions. Before the advent of online shopping, malls were the locations of communal gatherings for us to quell our anxieties with our purchasing power. Like with shopping, this habitual practice of numbing through consumption has moved beyond just our material possessions. Digital media, in the form of social media, paradoxically heightens our anxieties while distracting us from our most inner thoughts and feelings. The cultural trend of binge watching Netflix denies us time to think. We begrudgingly click the "continue watching" button as our screens flicker to remind us our sedentary habits, albeit for a second. In doing so, we are denied the opportunity for introspection and insight into our own minds. This culmination of habits has led to the regression of values set within society and to which we expect to behave.
Religion for Atheists highlights that there are a variety of benefits to religion that can be applied to our modern world without the attachment to an omniscient being. In utilising art to remind us of our key values, we may be able to keep such values at the forefront of our minds as we live out our lives. Art museums may be structured not by artistic periods, but by the messages they express - with a floor dedicated to joy, and another to consolation. Architecture could be reimagined to fulfil the role of many theistic shrines; specific locations that remind us of certain worldly concepts. A building may be designed to remind us of our insignificance in the cosmos, or perhaps as a space for self-reflection. A university education may come to include appointed classes in introspection, philosophy, and how to live well, all supported by the plethora of material from the culmination of the arts, history and literature. No longer will education consist of mere academic goals, but how to make a cultivated self.
There is a level of idealism that comes with these concepts, however, I am a firm believer that an idealistic mindset is needed. Such high standards need to be formed so that we have a bar to reach for and a level to hold ourselves to. Until we reenvision our standard for society, we will not progress. In my opinion, that standard includes a level of belief or spirituality within our society, removed from that of any theism - a tool which helps us lead a more introspective and conscious life. For now, we are living with delusions of what our world is. Through negligence, we stay shackled by the misinformed expectations of today's society. Our material goods hold us down and we are forced to look onward. As we continue to numb our minds from our innermost thoughts, our screens flicker a shadowy reality before our eyes. Only when we turn our heads and leave our sedated confines will we understand the hollow from whence we dwelled. In doing so, we can attain new perspective to lead a more truthful existence. Through this, we may learn what may come from living a good life. A life not riddled with misleading belief. A life lived with an earnest understanding of ourselves and those we live among.