Well, make your mind up, mate. Despite the best efforts of hyper-rationalists, and the poor faith of such priests, many of us do seem to have an ongoing concern with a "God-shaped hole" in human life. For some it's a void that, unfilled, does have the potential to unravel the fabric of everything. It is as if we had evolved to crave a flavour that has never existed, or no longer exists -- a spiritual umami.
I think we all sense the inability of religion to deal with this deep yearning. Religion is merely society's way of putting a solid safety rail around that God-shaped hole. If you have ever been to church -- increasingly unlikely in Britain (though I'm speaking out of a "Christian" tradition, here) -- it must have struck you how empty that experience is at its core. It can be beautiful if you like that sort of thing (I don't), and its rituals can be comforting to some, but even when -- especially when -- it manages to be electrifying, you are left with that feeling that your willingness to self-deceive is the real Main Act. The religious would say that's not the point, but they're the ones sitting in empty churches. That Big Hole is still there.
Another fence around the hole is humour. Humour is a way of accepting gracefully the danger signals that things like an absurd coincidence, or a sudden fright, or an inexorable and unpleasant fate set off. Whoah, mind that hole! British gallows humour has seen our ancestors through some difficult times, but in the end "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not much of a philosophy, really, is it?
More and more people are ignoring the imperative not to look into that Big Hole. They are home-grown seekers, who crave the sublime, not the comfort of the familiar. They want to experience transcendence, not hear ancient travellers' tales about it. When told that they could never withstand the unmediated presence of divinity they say, "I'll be the judge of that -- do you actually know where can I get some?" People climb mountains, surf waves, take drugs, paint pictures, buy crystals ... All in pursuit of that elusive extra dimension to their lives. You'd think, though, given that the desire for it seems to be built in to human life, it would be rather easier to find.
Even the more timid, if pushed, will admit to a desire for "something more", which easily mutates into a vague belief that there must be something more.
Perhaps as a legacy from childhood, perhaps not, there is also a common desire to be watched over:
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?Good to know, given the price of sparrows.
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.
This craving for a truly universal surveillance system is one of the faces of the profoundly human desire for and belief in justice. It is a wish that the perpetrators of unspeakably evil acts will have been observed, no matter how secret or dark their torture chambers; that their acts and motivations will have been noted, and that they will finally be held to account, judged, and suitably punished.
The other face of justice is the hope that humility, goodness, self-sacrifice and playing by the rules will eventually get the rewards that they so rarely do in life. In the absence of a Second Coming and a Day of Judgement (in which even the priests seem no longer actually to believe), however, and on the evidence so far, it's not looking too good, is it?
Not surprisingly, decent people can experience despair when they bring to the forefront of their mind the improbability of their most secret hopes. "All my life, I paid deposits of Goodness into this insurance scheme I was sold by the priests, and now they're saying it may not pay out anything at all!". It makes all those dodgy financial instruments look pretty small beer, doesn't it?
Increasingly, perhaps as an antidote to that despair, I think we are all becoming Epicureans, which has probably been the real default setting of intelligent human minds for thousands of years. With Epicurus, we hold that, if the gods exist at all, which seems unlikely, then they are very far away and care nothing whatsoever about us. Most of us think that death, unfair as it may seem, is the end of our personal stake and interest in the universe. And, if we believe anything, it is that fellow-feeling, endurance, moderation and simplicity are virtues that, with a bit of luck and a lot of mutual toleration, will lead to freedom from fear and pain, which is about as good as it gets.
So, perhaps "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not such a bad philosophy, after all.
Seeing as I'm in Rabbi Lionel Blue mode, here's a favourite religious joke, which I'm sure you've already heard:
A man prays to God to let him win the Lottery. God ignores the man's prayers. But the man is insistent: day after day, year after year, he prays and prays and prays: "Dear God, please let me win the Lottery!" God ignores him. But, eventually, God gets fed up, and decides to answer the man's prayers. "OK, OK," God says, "I'll let you win the Lottery. But, on one condition!" "Thank you, Lord! And what is your one condition?" "Meet me half way -- this time, BUY A BLOODY TICKET!"