'Oh, I'm not religious', is one of the first things people say to me when they know I'm a priest. I often feel the protest is the modern equivalent of waving garlic to ward off unpleasant spirits. 'That's interesting', seems the only reasonable response, which inevitably prompts a fascinating conversation about spirituality, the meaning of life and yes, even God.
Even for people who consider themselves to be 'not religious', talking about God is a favourite topic as long as we start at what the philosopher Alain de Botton calls the very, very beginning. A place where there are no deities, supernatural spirits or angels and move on from there.
Supernatural beings are useful in works of art, nativity plays or religious festivals because they give us a way to imagine beyond our everyday world. They act like a doorway to the essential and unknowable that lies behind. The trouble is that the doorway is where many people stop, even though they have an inkling of what might lie beyond.
Getting beyond the doorway is what religious practices and rituals are for. Alain de Botton identifies some of these in his delightful TED talk Atheism 2.0. He points to repetition, oratory, arranging time, bodies, art and travel as techniques religions use to draw people beyond the ordinary.
Chants, Christmas carols and well-known prayers like the Our Father stick in the mind even if we don't mean them to. Festivals like Christmas turn up year after year so that we can't avoid bumping into them. Great cathedrals full of amazing art works entice us to contemplate beauty and mystery. Even traveling the world with an interest in more than shopping can be seen as the ancient religious practice of pilgrimage to holy places.
Perhaps being religious in the 21st century can be about quite rightly not believing in the doorways but using them to enter an exploration of life that opens us up to what lies under the surface. It's a different way of seeing and valuing life, a perspective that is sometimes uncomfortable but unexpectedly fulfilling.
These discoveries may change forever how we see the world and our place in it but as de Botton says at the end of his talk, 'religions are so subtle, so intelligent in many ways that they're not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone; they're for all of us.' Amen to that!
Check out Alain de Botton's new book, Religion for Atheists along with his engaging and thought provoking TED talk below.
You might also be interested in Alain's brainchild The School of Life, that offers good ideas for everyday living.