An atheist reminds us to be proud of our faith institutions

I was recently in Jerusalem on a hot Friday afternoon. In a religion-clogged city, I was having a conversation with a student rabbi about whether it was simply a waste of time to follow their chosen vocation, given how many people were turning away from God and Judaism. In 25 years’ time, who would still be coming to be part of the synagogue community? Would our faith institutions still play a meaningful role in Western society?

I was reading Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’, a simultaneously frustrating and engaging book. De Botton wrote it to identify some of the lessons that can be learnt from religion by atheists, including: how to create community; promote kindness; gain perspective and challenge commercialism. Amusingly, the book ends up occasionally reading like an alien’s description of water: two hydrogen and one oxygen atom. Yes, H20 may be the chemical composition, but that gives no sense of what it feels like to jump into a pool on a hot day.

Image result for religion for atheists

However, when a committed atheist dedicates a book to what can be learnt from religion, it challenged me to reflect on just how remarkable and precious our faith institutions are and what important contributions they make to our lives, the lives of our communities and to democratic life.

Here are 3 reasons to celebrate our faith institutions:

  • Faith institutions give people the tools to make our lives more meaningful

De Botton states that:

“It is a singularly regrettable feature of the modern world that while some of the most trivial of our requirements are met by superlatively managed brands, our essential needs are left in the disorganised and unpredictable care of lone actors.”

Religion has studied our human need to build meaningful lives. We need healthy relationships, public recognition and a sense of purpose. Faith institutions help us to build meaning through collective prayer, ritual, meditation and study.

In comparison, our market culture sells us quick fixes. Huge amounts of money, advertising and human talent is dedicated to the kind of shampoo we should buy. Self-help gurus sell books encouraging personal transformation. City banks and the US Marines use mindfulness practices to help executives and soldiers to sell or kill more effectively.

If the prevailing market culture encourages us to become atomised consumers, our faith institutions offer counter cultural sanctuaries. People count because they are human. What matters is what we contribute, not how much we have accumulated. The important questions in community life are: Do we take the time to be curious and interested in one another? Do we visit people when they are ill?

Faith institutions create meaning through personal and communal rituals that sanctify moments of sadness, joy or awe to avoid them getting lost or forgotten.  As De Botton says: “[r]eligions bring scale, constituency and outer-directed force to what might otherwise always remain small, random, private moments.”

Image result for faith institutions ritual

Our faith institutions also challenge us to become better people, committed to building a common life with others. Faith institution based meditation is not aimed at efficiency, but rather, collective reflection on how we can become kinder people and what it means to live a decent life. Our institutions encourage us to share our worries and take responsibility for one another. De Botton reminds us that we need “institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined, but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be too distracted and undisciplined to make time for.”

  • Faith institutions build our capacity to engage in democracy and public life

De Botton says:

“Among the fundamental lessons of religions as institutions are the importance of scale and the benefits that flow from being able to aggregate money, intelligence and status. Whereas Romanticism glorifies the achievements of singular heroes, religions know how much will be impossible if individuals act alone.”

Our faith institutions are universities that teach the art democratic life and enable individuals to be powerful enough to make the changes we need.

These ‘mediating’ institutions, strengthen democratic life in two ways. First, according to veteran US organiser, Ernesto Cortes, our institutions teach us “the habits and practices for a vibrant democratic culture” through inculcating the habits of building relationships, compromise, public speaking and respecting differences.[i] Second, our institutions can protect individuals from the worst excesses of the market and the state, through food banks and debt counselling and often provide the nodes through which rapid relief and support are organised.

Rev Alan Everett surrounded by donations from the public at the church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, next to Grenfell Tower

Rev Alan Everett surrounded by donations from the public at the church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, next to Grenfell Tower. Photograph: Matthew Barrett

The problems we face – housing, inequality, the NHS, safety on our streets, pollution – are too big and too complex to tackle alone. Alone, we are powerless. We are forced to accept whatever fate the market or the state decides for us. Through participating in our institutions, we understand ourselves to be more than just individuals, but members of our institution’s collective. Through this collective interest, we can build enough power to be co-authors of our future.

  • Faith institutions challenge us to care generationally

Ernesto Cortes, in a recent training session, spoke of how counter-culturally our faith institutions see the world. They are not overly concerned, unlike a company, with their quarterly report, or, like a politician, with the electoral cycle. Our institutions have deep roots. They have been around for centuries and are organising for the next 100 years. They care about what kind of society we will be in a generation: how will people treat one another? Will our children’s children still be able to breathe the air or live safely in our buildings? How will the most marginalised people in our society be trained to demand recognition and take power?


This blog post is not a complete answer to my student rabbi friend’s concerns. Yes, increasing numbers of people feel uncomfortable with God. Many people are no longer joining organisations of any kind, faith or otherwise. But even in my friend’s question about synagogue relevance lies the power of what faith institutions continue to offer. Isolated and vulnerable millennials also need spaces to build community and reflect collectively – courses and meditation retreats do not have the grounding that our organisations create.

We will still need our faith organisations to challenge us to create meaningful lives and build the power we need to act effectively with others in public life to create a just and decent society.

If Alain De Botton reminds us of what it is that we do well, then may God bless him!

Daniel Mackintosh is a South African, Jewish resident of Southwark who has been organising in the UK for 3 ½ years years. @mckdnl


[i] Here are three practices our institutions teach. First, compromise and the importance of relationships. In council meetings, there is always that frustrating person who will defend the status quo. But, our institutions teach the necessity of compromise and kindness because we will continue to see one another at services. Second, public speaking – when we participate by giving sermons, sharing testimony or reading in public. Third, respecting people who are different. Young and old, people from different ethnic backgrounds, all need to negotiate how to share the same space.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s