When I walk past my local village church, a thought occurs to me. Religion suits those who are religious. Going to church; singing in the choir; participating in the local community; all these activities, when bound up with the church, suit those who 'love God'. For much of our history, religious practice and the code of ethics tied up therein provided the unifying framework - intellectually and socially- in which pretty much all of our activities made sense. These activities were justified - within the Christian faith - by belief in God and in the words of God.
Yet these activities can have a justification which stands quite apart from belief in a deity. We might say that the essential character of such activities is their unifying and communal nature. In fact, some might argue, their justification was always enmeshed with these social functions. Furthermore, the idea of God meant something quite different in days gone by than in the current time. Believing in an all-powerful creator and personal God made a lot of sense when the laws governing the universe were not well known. But such belief seems now to be difficult to sustain. Faith is backed into corners and gaps with the advance of science. The different aspects of God - the personal-ethical and the physical-creator – now seem tenuous in themselves and in relation to one an other.
Theology from an atheist point of view looks quite different from theology from the theistic perspective. Religion simply professes belief in non-existent or nonsensical non-entities. Yet the second, social point of view still holds whatever one's views on metaphysics. Whatever the guiding social ideas of an atheist community, it is possible that they would look similar to those professed by the Christian community - a set of common ethics, a time and place of coming together, reverence for the dead and for the ideals of the society; and a sense of the sacred. Since, from an atheist point of view, God either does not exist or is a nonsensical concept, the reasons given by the religious for their actions are delusions. However, there may still be a socially beneficial purpose behind religion.
Of those with non-theistic reasons for interest in Christianity, those who see it as having social purpose come closest to the notion of the noble lie in Plato's republic. The mass of people cannot understand the 'form of the good'; so the philosophers should promote a religion which symbolically represents this ineffable form.
But there is a basic problem of meaning. Which one is it? Is religion the truth? Or is it intended to be a noble lie? Our reaction to it will depend on what it purports to be. It would be best if it would settle down on one conception of itself; a conception that is in reasonable coherence with other truths that are known.
Perhaps the history of protestantism is a wish to go closer to the unadulterated truth. This makes sense for the religiously fervent, but for the doubting makes religion suicidally naked.
Even a fervent atheist might be moved by C. S. Lewis arguments1 to wish to preserve what one might term 'the patterns of the sacred'. But where does such a type of fervent atheist go? He feels disorientated because 'the desire to worship' clashes with 'the desire for truth' and his commitment to truth clashes with the theists commitment to a quite different truth. He could abandon his commitment to truth. Here are some better options:
He could view religion as purely ritual or traditional
He could try to find a meaning for the ambiguous word 'God' - perhaps finding a link to a sense of 'higher inspiration'
He could search for truth in philosophy and for tradition in old philosophy
He could find truth and beauty in art, literature, and the natural world
He could find communion in the community
None of these are a badge of trust; none aid discipline in hard times; none are the framing protection of a father God larger than ourselves; but together they start to make a worldly and spiritual life that makes a little bit more sense.