There is a reason why atheism and republicanism are common bedfellows. King Charles III, like his mother before him, is supreme governor of the Church of England and “Defender of the Faith”. Elizabeth II’s funeral rituals on Monday were the apogee of Anglicanism. The Royal family derives its legitimacy from God. Ultimately, however, it is secularists who should have most faith in the crown.
Those who dislike — or disavow — monarchy tend to rely on appeals to fairness, wealth distribution and dignity. These arguments are perfectly coherent and make important points, but they fail to accommodate some other fundamentals of humanity: we slavishly devote ourselves to symbols; we are sentimental; we crave communality; we need to feel like we belong to something outside ourselves. Public religion fulfilled that need. Without religion, the monarchy is somewhere to direct this energy.
In a secular, liberal democracy the need to belong does not simply go away. It just gets replaced with something weirder. The booming resurgence of astrology and tarot card reading has long been considered a manifestation of societal desire for structure and divine ordinance in an irreligious world; a vehicle to impose meaning on our otherwise chaotic and disordered lives.
Or perhaps we might think about the quasi-religious faith many have in free markets: those cosmic levers of the economy, the invisible hand, the god which so many uncritically and dutifully serve. Without a church, some simply bow at the altar of capital. Is that preferable?
The tight-knit coterie of zealots have strict rules on what is right and what is wrong
There are also the millions of Americans in the clutches of QAnon — an online figure who preaches with omniscience about the deep state, the shadowy worlds of the elite and the cabal of paedophiles that run our institutions. The conspiracy — one that inspires intense devotion — erects an actively harmful world of make-believe. But it is nonetheless held up by its followers as sacred.
And what about the social justice warriors? In her BBC radio documentary, the Church of Social Justice, Helen Lewis contends that politics has filled the yawning chasm in our lives left by the decline of public religion. The tight-knit coterie of zealots have strict rules on what is right and what is wrong — sinful and virtuous — and demonise those who fail to adhere, using the language of fire and brimstone.
It is clear, then, when you remove the church the desire for community, symbols and metaphors do not vacate the human consciousness, as if by magic. There is a reason the world has always sought gods and figureheads and imbued them with a mythical quality. Secularism has not magnificently rewired the entire history of human psychology. Instead, as public religion wanes it leaves a hole. And the question is: what do you want to fill it?
Clement Attlee, Labour’s socialist British prime minister from 1945-1951, was not a religious man. In fact, he described himself as “incapable of religious experience”. But he understood the inherent sentimentality of people. And he understood that it could be channelled in dangerous ways.
In his treatise on the monarchy, he explained: “The monarchy attracts to itself the kind of sentimental loyalty which otherwise might to the leader of a faction. There is, therefore, far less danger under a constitutional monarchy of the people being carried away by a Hitler, a Mussolini, or even a de Gaulle.”
If monarchy provides this stable continuity and keeps extreme polarisation at bay, then the inverse should not surprise us. The United States — a republic desperately in need of a direction — is the locus of the most acute culture wars, the greatest devotion to QAnon, and the nation whose citizens report the highest levels of societal division in the world.
Meanwhile, countries often held up as the standard bearer for equality and unity tend to have monarchies: Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway. As writer Ian Leslie suggests, “while it’s impossible to disentangle the many historical factors that make for a decent and successful society, it is at the very least tough to make the case, on evidence alone, that democratic monarchies are inherently bad”.
The queue to see the queen lying in state was most interesting, if anything because of its ordinariness
In lieu of a public faith, people need somewhere to direct their desires for the ephemeral and the universal. And we have seen exactly that in London over the past week. The horses and swords and music in the funeral procession were magnificent. But the queue to see the queen lying in state was most interesting, if anything because of its ordinariness.
Were you to ask the people in the queue if they were fanatically religious most would probably say no. Religious belief is declining in Britain. But there they were in this quite extreme act of devotion, almost pilgrim-like, part of a singular expression of communion divorced from party politics.
Perhaps those people seem completely at odds with contemporary society, weirdos even. But that is a presumption reliant on a distinctly emotionless premise, one that refuses to accept the centrality of symbolism and mythology to the entirety of human existence.