Like the cathedrals of bygone eras, galleries are now the ultimate buildings of our times – and the way we use them mimics religious rituals, writes Jason Farago.

Art critics wear many hats, but lately the most useful one has been a safety helmet. Across the United States, arts institutions are in the middle of a building boom, and globally, outside of Europe’s austerity-choked capitals, the strongholds of art are rising as well. In New York this May, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new riverside home to rave reviews and serpentine queues – but not far away, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History are all expanding, while the Studio Museum in Harlem has just announced a new building. This summer the Broad Museum, Los Angeles’s newest joint for contemporary art, sets down in a crystalline box on Grand Avenue. The last year in Europe has given us the Fondazione Prada in Milan, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow; elsewhere the Australian Museum in Sydney is enlarging, while Abu Dhabi and, more weirdly, Helsinki prepare for new satellites of the Guggenheim.

The museum is the building that every serious architect dreams of designing

Not since the late 1990s, when Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao catalysed a wave of often dubious museum buildings, have this many temples to art arisen. And I use the word “temples” advisedly. If churches and cathedrals once stood at the top of the architectural hierarchy, today the museum is the building form that every serious architect dreams of designing. The financial Medicis of the 21st Century are not throwing much money at religious institutions – but a new museum, especially one offering naming rights, can attract the sort of budget that would once have been reserved for a cathedral. As a question of architectural ambition, art museums are the new churches: that much should be clear by now. But who are these new churches’ parishioners, and what sort of worship is going on?

Immaculate collections

If museums have become the preeminent form of building, that isn’t merely because the role of the church has declined in recent centuries and something had to fill the gap. On the contrary, the shifts in status of museum architecture parallel a shifting understanding of the place of art in society, and its role in shaping the society in question. Before the upheavals of the late 18th Century, secular art in Europe was housed primarily in princely collections – such as Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci picture gallery in Potsdam, or the Borghese and Doria Pamphilj galleries in Rome. These were sumptuously decorated, sometimes with iconography on the walls that glorified the sovereigns or aristocrats who owned them; they had little to no public function. By the 19th Century, particular in England and Germany, museums were explicitly founded to serve as places for ethical and social improvement, and that function was dramatised in museum architecture: above all the South Kensington Museum in London, now the Victoria & Albert Museum, a pseudo-Renaissance mashup expressing public virtue and extolling moral uplift.

But in the 20th Century, aesthetic contemplation became a virtue in its own right, and museum architecture changed accordingly. HP Berlage’s Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, which opened in 1935 and is arguably the first truly modern museum building, expressed the new spirit via a gridded floor plan, a long walkway dividing the ‘profane’ city from the ‘sacred’ museum, and, most importantly, immaculate white walls. Edward Durrell Stone and Philip Goodwin’s Museum of Modern Art, which opened a few years later, went even further, propounding the clean white surfaces of the International Style as the undisputed means to display the art of one’s time. All of the transformations art has gone through in the last 80 years have done nothing to dent the supremacy of the white cube: pure, even sacred spaces, in which artworks are bathed in carefully calibrated light against pristine backdrops. Even Rem Koolhaas’s Garage Museum in Moscow, which redeploys Soviet murals in its public spaces, insists on white walls for the exhibitions.

We make ‘pilgrimages’ to museums to experience 'transcendence'

The white cube is only the most obvious trope by which museum architecture has taken on religious character. Another trope is giant atriums – seen not only in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and Fondation Louis Vuitton, but at Yoshio Taniguchi’s renovated MoMA, Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern, or Renzo Piano’s Harvard Art Museums and Morgan Library – that dwarf visitors in functionless, pseudo-grand space, like the nave of a basilica. (One of the nicest surprises of Piano’s Whitney is that it forgoes that bombastic gesture; the building is more akin to his factory-like Pompidou Centre in Paris than his atrium-afflicted recent work.) The increasing scale of art museums and their increased prominence in urban design is relevant here too: the planned new Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the most significant museum building project in the US, is so large it will actually cross Wilshire Boulevard, hovering over the earthquake-prone city as only a temple, or perhaps a royal palace, could have in centuries past.

Let us pray

The art museum has supplanted the church as the pinnacle of architectural ambition, but a more curious ecclesiastical shift may be taking place inside the museum’s walls. These days we frequently use religious language when talking about art. We make ‘pilgrimages’ to museums or to landmarks of public art in far-off locales. We experience ‘transcendence’ before major paintings or large-scale installations. Especially important works – Mona Lisa at the Louvre, most famously – are often displayed in their own niches rather than in historical presentations, all the better for genuflection. What is the busiest day of the week for most contemporary art museums? That would be Sunday: the day we used to reserve for another house of worship.

Actual religion is foreign to the world of contemporary art

The subtly ecclesiastical character of museum architecture, and the more and more evident ecclesiastical behavior of art audiences, can feel especially ironic when you remember how foreign actual religion is to the world of contemporary art. We expect to come up against explicitly religious art only in historical exhibitions or, more problematically, non-western displays. Contemporary art with a true religious conviction, on the other hand, sticks out. At the Venice Biennale, at which nations mount individual exhibitions, the Vatican’s display is reliably mocked as retrograde or irrelevant. And during the last edition of Documenta, the German megashow held once every five years, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev found herself in a bizarre spat with the local Catholic church, which installed a figurative sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol in the belfry of Kassel’s Elisabethkirche. She wanted the sculpture removed, lest anyone think that the (not very impressive) artwork was part of her show.

If Christov-Bakargiev felt that her Documenta, the largest and most important contemporary art exhibition in the entire world, was threatened by a single work of art in a church, that may be because art might not want to advertise its recent embrace of forms and functions once reserved for things holy. The legacy of the Enlightenment – for better, for worse – is that only rational, secular knowledge counts as truth today, whereas the kind of truth claimed by religion has no public purchase, only a personal one. Museums, not only art museums but also museums of history and of natural science, were for most of their past devoted to that first, secular form of truth, discovered through rigorous study and exhibited in systematic ways. It seems more and more, in this age of immersive installations and monumentally scaled sculptures, that that scientifically inspired age is passing. Those soaring glass atriums in Paris and Abu Dhabi are in line with the spirit of the times, which now aspire to a different form of truth – something vaguer but more comforting for smartphone-wielding aesthetes still unmoored by the death of God.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.