Sometimes they admit it. Sometimes they admit, “no it’s not just practice, it’s not just being good – it’s belief.” The Spectator does.
It is certainly the case, as AN Wilson says in a Spectator review, that, until relatively recently, religious ritual did include unbelievers as a matter of course since those rites focused on participation rather than subscribing explicitly to a creed. But the ‘consoling subtle or just charming rituals’ of religion that Mr de Botton would like to co-opt for unbelievers are not, I’d say, detachable from the beliefs that inspired them. It’s a little like saying that the music and poetry of love are too charming, too consoling to be confined to those who love and should be extended to those who have never been in love or who find themselves incapable of it. The benefits of religion flow, I’d say, from the things believers believe.
We agree with you, except that we think that most of the benefits aren’t really benefits. We think believing there is an omnipotent being who wants us to believe it exists but refuses to give us any good reason to do so is not a benefit but a mind-impeding device.
Christians believe in the brotherhood of man, for instance, because we believe in the Fatherhood of God, or its feminist equivalent.
But believing in the Fatherhood of God entails believing that the male sex is the better one. The brotherhood of man is not entirely a benefit to women. “Its feminist equivalent” is a throwaway phrase which makes little dent in the existing patriarchal arrangements.
And so on. We can go on for hours in this vein. But the point is, they think what we’ve always said they think: that the beliefs do matter and that they do take them seriously.