There's value in preserving religious structures — even for the religiously unaffiliated

When Notre-Dame's towering gothic spire collapsed in flames on Monday, the moment felt symbolic. The foundering of this monument to European Christianity seemed to sound the death knell of a religious tradition that Europeans and North Americans have been quietly deserting for decades.

But the nearly universal cry of horror in response to images of the conflagration at the cathedral shows a reticence – even among growing numbers of secular people – to relegate religious structures to the dustbin of history.

The practice of Christianity, and of organized religion in general, is in decline in many countries, France and Canada among them.

Although France is being described as a Catholic country in much of the reporting on the Notre-Dame fire, as many as 51 per cent of its residents now identify as having no religion whatsoever. This is twice the proportion of religiously unaffiliated people in Canada, which is about 24 per cent (according to the 2011 census). By comparison, only 4.5 per cent of the French population attends mass at least once a month.

Still, hundreds of millions of Euros have already been pledged for the repair of Paris' famous cathedral. Tellingly, the largest donors emphasize Notre-Dame's value as an architectural achievement and historic site, rather than as a place of worship.

In a Twitter post, France's wealthiest businessman, Bernard Arnault, and his family promised €200 million "for reconstruction of this architectural work, which is an integral part of the history of France." An attached statement referred to Notre-Dame as an "extraordinary cathedral, a symbol of France, its heritage and its unity."

The fire at Notre-Dame was like an accelerated version of what's been happening to church buildings throughout both France and Canada. In fact, before the fire, the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris were struggling to raise the $70 million that was already urgently needed for restorations.

France's tens of thousands of historic churches and cathedrals are owned by the state, which is responsible for their maintenance, but makes them available to clergy for acts of worship. With many pressing demands on their budgets, however, France's federal and municipal governments are rarely able to allocate enough funding to keep historic churches in peak repair.

In Canada, where places of worship are still owned by religious bodies, dwindling congregations mean emptier collection plates and less money available for the upkeep of church buildings. A national heritage group recently predicted that 9,000 Canadian churches will close within the next decade.

As we've seen with Notre-Dame, though, even the religiously unaffiliated see value in preserving at least some religious structures.

Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters

Churches, mosques, and temples are more than just gathering places for the faithful. Houses of worship are often entwined with key moments in political and civic history; Notre-Dame, for example, housed the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution and was later the site of Napoleon's coronation.

Throughout human history, we have also poured some of our greatest ingenuity and creativity into the construction of religious buildings. Inspired by faith, and funded by devout patrons, artisans the world over built beautiful and innovative places of worship that have become landmarks and cultural touchstones.

Secular values like historical significance, aesthetic merit, and economic potential will most likely determine which church buildings survive this century. Notre-Dame's importance as a symbol of French identity, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a tourist attraction, for instance, will ensure that it's rebuilt.

But religious structures can have value for secular people beyond their material worth as historical and aesthetic objects.

Religious buildings fill a need for non-commercial community spaces, places where we can reflect on philosophical or spiritual questions free of charge. Although I'm agnostic, I value the time I've spent in quiet contemplation in churches and mosques, structures purpose-built to instill a sense of wonder and elevate our thinking beyond the sometimes overwhelming concerns of day-to-day life.

Because religious disaffiliation has progressed so quickly in countries like Canada and France – and because this transition has been motivated, at least in part, by religious disillusionment and trauma – we haven't had the time or the interest to consider what we may be losing when we leave organized religion behind.

Most secular people still want spaces for reflection, opportunities to consider ethics and meaning, and communities of like-minded peers. The question is: are we willing to preserve existing religious structures as places to meet these needs?

Could we repurpose religious buildings as nonsectarian spaces that sometimes host religious worship and sometimes secular discussion groups? Could we do it without favouring one religion's buildings over others and without feeling like we're endorsing a religion's views by sharing their space?

Most religious buildings will go quietly, not in a sudden inferno that forces us to ask ourselves whether we're willing to invest in their conservation. But unless we put our minds to this question now, we may find ourselves in a culturally impoverished landscape, no brimstone necessary.

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