Why religion retains its relevance – even when belief in God wanes
A Noah's Ark exhibit at the Museum of the Bible opening in DC this weekend. Credit: Kevin Dietsch/UPI   

A decade ago, atheism was the all the rage. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was published in 2006, followed by God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens in 2007. In 2008, the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ was launched, raising over a £150,000 to put atheist slogans on London buses. This prompted similar campaigns in other countries.

A decade on, and despite the continuing decline of religious adherence, the campaign, together with the broader ‘New Atheist’ movement, can be seen as a failure. This is how Ben Sixsmith, a self-described agnostic, concludes a thought-provoking essay for Quillette:

“‘There’s probably no god,’ proclaimed the famous slogan on the side of the ‘Atheist Bus’ in 2008, ‘Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ No one stopped worrying, and, thus, here we are. The religious instinct perseveres. How it will be actualised is to be contested.”

The core of his argument is that, even in the midst of unbelief, religion (and, in particular, Christianity) remains culturally relevant – and not just in a weak sense:

“Europe and America, of course, have Christian heritage and there is no excuse for intelligent citizens to lack some knowledge of and appreciation for the faith. To reject it as a whole means rejecting Inferno, Paradise Lost and Four Quartets. To dismiss its power is to dismiss the power of Mass in B minor, Requiem and The Creation. To deny its influence on our social norms is to deny the influence of faith on family structures, common law, industry and social justice.

“One could value our religious heritage while maintaining that religion is no longer relevant. Christianity might have inspired Dante and Donne but now artists have secular sources of inspiration. There are nonbelievers, though, who turn to the Bible for advice and inspiration and are ‘cultural Christians’ in a deeper sense.”

These deep cultural Christians can be found within the (secular) intellectual resistance to the “deconstructive frenzy” of the post-modernist left. An increasingly influential figure, in this regard, is the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson:

“Influenced by Carl Jung, he argues that whether or not great stories reflect actual events they reflect the archetypal narratives of human beings and their societies…

“The story of Noah’s Ark, for example, reflects the need to order one’s life so as to withstand chaos. The story of Abraham reflects the need to abjure comfort for the sake of achievement. One could teach these lessons without reference to ancient texts, of course, yet abstracting them from stories weakens the emotional punch and divides our collective consciousness.”

This is also why secular sources of inspiration provide such an inadequate substitute for religion.

At any one time, popular culture will produce stories, images, words and music that provide common reference points across a population. Some of these might even fall into the category of inspirational and perhaps archetypal. But the trouble is that they very rarely endure.

Consider, for instance, the Matrix films (1999 and 2003), which were saturated with quasi-religious themes. The messianic hero of the franchise, ‘Neo’, was played by Keanu Reeves – an iconic role for one of the most famous actors of his generation. The other week, I was shocked to discover that the younger members of the UnHerd office had no idea who he was – and had never seen the Matrix.

As well as making me feel positively ancient, this also made me realise just how ephemeral most of our cultural references are – and therefore how useless they are in shaping the “collective consciousness” of a nation or civilisation. For that we need the mythical, the legendary and, above all, the religious.

This, of course, requires a basic level of religious literacy – but does it also require actual belief? Ben Sixsmith believes that this is an important question:

“Religion exists insofar as it is functional; insofar, in other words, as it promotes human well-being. It can do this, of course, but without the grandeur of God, and the promise of Heaven, it is less compelling and less exceptional; part of the structure of societies and not their energising force.”

Another, less self-centred, way of putting the question is this: is the Christian story contained within our culture? Or is our culture contained within the Christian story?