Last Sunday, we went to church.
The building was spectacular: modern, comfortable and spacious with a backdrop of calming waters beyond the window; clean white walls and an atmosphere of peace and togetherness.
It was heartening to be in a congregation of 200 like-minded folk. The gathering of minds is important on so many levels. The collegiality you achieve with people who harbour similar thoughts to your own is comforting in itself. To sit and contemplate, listen to a thoughtful speaker, and contribute with your own voice, is extremely pleasing.
This is the kind of church we like.
Only it wasn’t an actual church, not in the biblical sense, and neither was it compliant with the dictionary meaning of the word.
A church, according to the dictionary definition means “a building for worship, especially Christian” or “any division professing the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority”.
So no, it wasn’t a “church”.
What it was, though, was a gathering of people of similar mind who wished to have a place where they could share their opinions, listen to others and congregate together. This is a good way to spend a Sunday morning, but is somehow impossible for the many people who don’t have a Christian faith. Other religions congregate on other days. Those of no religious faith, which incidentally is not the same as no belief system, do not have a place to gather together.
Which is why Alain de Botton, the speaker on that particular Sunday morning at Guardian Open Weekend, is advocating the idea of a secular ‘church’ or ‘temple’ where atheists can gather together in collective thought, with aesthetically pleasing artefacts and images, and with music that encourages contemplation and, indeed spirituality.
A speaker could be invited to talk about all manner of subjects; to offer philosophical starting points that the ‘congregation’ could discuss, or perhaps a commentary on specific news items that offers an alternative standpoint.
Some might argue that there are other venues that could be used for such discussions; a proper pub with regular customers who enjoy a good banter is such a place, a meal with friends or maybe a work canteen over lunch, -but how many people have a proper lunch hour these days?
In days gone by, politicians used to go to public gatherings to talk about the issues of the day. Real democratic debate took place in the oral tradition passed down through the ages from the great Greek philosophers. With the onset of television, these open discussions have diminished almost to extinction. The debates on television have continued in programmes such as Question Time – but interaction with the audience is very limited. Now, with Twitter and the ability to comment on a news article in places such as Comment is Free on the Guardian website, the the voice of the people is beginning to return. And whilst the interaction between people on such sites is interesting, it’s not the same as physically gathering together in a certain place, as Alain de Botton is advocating.
We need a public place where thoughts can be shared, where progressive people with energy and a profound belief in a better world can get together – to talk, to think, to meditate – and with the added energy and vitality of inspirational art, both audio and visual, to enhance feelings and bring non-religious spirituality into a physical domain.
Spirituality, or spiritual intelligence, is not something specifically or solely for people of faith. Spirituality is far greater than this. Awe and wonder, a love of beauty, a feeling one gets from seeing and hearing something significant, can all produce inner experiences which can be called ‘spiritual’.
In our busy lives, we rarely allow ourselves time to stop and think, or indeed to just ‘be’, without doing or thinking. To do what Taoists and Buddhists call ‘sitting quietly, doing nothing’. Sometimes those of religious faith enter a place they call a church, a temple, a mosque, etc, to do such things either as individuals or as a community, but what about people without a belief in a God or gods? Should they not also have a special place and opportunities to do so, collectively, as de Botton suggests?
In our last blog, we mentioned Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and how this is the sort of songwriting or poetry that could be used in secondary schools as a starting point for a philosophical discussion on the meaning of life. But why should it just be restricted to schools?
Wouldn’t you like to spend time with like-minded folk discussing what it means to “grow up to be righteous”? Or perhaps you might prefer a conversation about how one deals wisely and intelligently with times when “the winds of change shift”?
There is certainly a need for this collective gathering, and who knows where it might go towards the development of community; a proper community where people don’t just talk but act upon their shared aspirations. That really would be a Big Society in action.
At the Open Weekend Alain de Botton was in discussion with Giles Fraser about the nature of religion and what it means to be an atheist. De Botton is known for his stance on atheism and once more talked about how the religions have taken control, often because they have the infrastructure and buildings to gather together (and the finances also). He talked about how religion helps some to “get through life”.
He talked about the way in which religions use regular meetings and an agreed timetable of events to reinforce beliefs through repetition and reiteration. He also spoke about the way in which religions take certain themes and claim them as their own. He used the example of water – how it symbolises reflection in many religions, how we have our weekly “plunging” if we attend church and give thanks to God. Should such experiences be only for those of faith? What’s wrong with a non-faith person using water in exactly the same way, expunging all negative thoughts on a weekly basis and embracing emptiness, as Zen philosophy would have us consider.
Giles Fraser, clearly a man of faith, offered his own opinions, agreed with the importance (for him) of regular Christian gatherings, and confirmed how his faith was a stabilising factor for himself and for his communities. He argued that faith was about living for others as well as yourself.
But as Alain de Botton pointed out, shared values are not the domain of those of faith alone. It’s wrong to think that there isn’t a collective secular appreciation of freedom, tolerance, peace, love, compassion, honesty, trust – all those values and virtues that 3Di Associates talk of as being an integral part of spiritual intelligence.
Non-religious people are also able to show an absolute commitment to these values without the need to believe in a divine being.
This ‘church’ gathering was wonderful. There were so many starting points for further discussion that an entire day could have been spent in that one room.
Triggers of debates came from simple statements that, for us, evolve into potential blogs or certainly potential conversations.
- Emotion versus reason: is there a time when acting on emotion is the right way?
- When we use the word ‘emotion’ do we actually mean ‘feeling’?
- “We act on fear or conscience” – instinct and intellect; how do they combine?
- What is the difference between ethics and spiritual intelligence?
- What is the intelligent approach to “sacrifice”? Where does sacrifice come into lovingkindness?
- Should we make ‘appointments with nature’?
To conclude this piece we’ll to return to the word “spirituality”.
Giles Fraser was honest in saying that he wasn’t entirely sure what it was. We had an opportunity to offer him some thoughts on the issue. Put very simply, it can be seen as a combination of awe and wonder in conjunction with shared human values, the practise of many different virtues, and a feeling of wellbeing and wonderment from a range of stimuli. There’s nothing ethereal or nebulous about it – we all know what it feels like to contemplate an incredible sunset, to appreciate the vastness of the universe and the mystery of life; and we all recognise what we mean by human values and virtues. You don’t have to believe in God in order to experience such feelings, or to espouse love and non-violence and other human values, or to practise virtuous behaviour.
Spiritual appreciation can come from looking at a flowing river as much (or more) than it can come from singing a hymn in church or listening to the sounds of a choir.
In fact, spirituality in music can come from anything that appeals to the ears of the listener. It’s the feeling that comes from our personal experience of beauty and meaning which makes it uplifting and spiritual.
The ‘church’ or ‘temple’ that Alain de Botton advocates would have candles, possibly incense too. It would have works of art creatively displayed, and music. It would have great speakers imparting wisdom and encouraging interaction.
It would be spiritual.
I don’t know whether Giles Fraser felt it but there was certainly a spirituality which transcended mere intellectualism in that room that day. The sun was shining and it was extremely warm for a March morning. There were shared values within the room. There was respect for those who did not necessarily hold exactly the same beliefs as others. There was camaraderie and compassion.
These are all parts of spiritual intelligence which can be present in any gathering – be it religious or secular.
It was the sort of Sunday morning meeting that we would happily take part in on a regular basis.
We wish Alain de Botton – truly an inspirational speaker – the best of luck in establishing his meeting place for philosophers and non-believers.