Sunday, August 18, 2013

Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion
© 2012 Alain de Botton
320 pages

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? [...] Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?   (The Parable of the Madman, F. Nietzsche)

Three years ago, former Baptist minister and now-agnostic Biblical scholar Robert M. Price posed a question to his audience of skeptics on Point of Inquiry: is the Bible  Mein Kampf?*  He asked the question to prompt religious critics to consider their animosity toward the Bible, which though flawed or offensive to them in part, still contained in it  beautiful stories and reflective wisdom; to reject the Bible because it had become the tool of fundamentalists to harp and rule over everyone else was folly, Price said; a loss to human art. It would be as if we were to spurn The Iliad because Achilles was a brute and the gods were fickle tyrants.  In the same spirit,  here agnostic Alain de Botton offers an appraising look at religion, and suggests that abandoning it entirely because we no longer believe its creeds is likewise folly, the willful abandonment of cultural adaptions humans created for their own benefit. In Religion for Atheists, he examines why religion worked for us for so long, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, then suggests ways in which skeptics, humanists, and so on can recover the strengths of the old permanent things without the witch-burnings. It is a profoundly thoughtful and wise book, which will no doubt annoy both the orthodox religious and anti-religious,  but offer  more moderate souls in and out of belief new ways to appreciate religion, and think about it seriously.

After enough glasses of wine, even the most antagonistic of atheists might admit that religion has a few redeeming virtues, mostly in the creative realm -- music, architecture, and art. Who would deny the beauty of the Sistine Chapel or the Parthenon? de Botton incorporates discussion of these into his work (with the astonishing absence of music), but his appreciation of them is linked to greater moral concerns. What does art do for us?  In de Botton's view, art should be not viewed as mere decor, as distracting prettiness: his view of art is one fully grounded in higher meaning,and he advocates using art in ways to provoke thought about the human condition. He practices this himself,  skillfully employing pictures throughout the text to truly illustrate his meaning: one plate shows a father at the end of his youth, beginning to bald as he enters his thirties, holding his toddling son and gazing upon a portrait of an elderly man in diapers:  a reflection on the realities of age.

de Botton's more broad appreciation for religion stems from the fact that life is difficult, and living a meaningful and moral life within it ever moreso. The actual beliefs of religion are irrelevant to the fact that as institutions, they provide places for people to escape from societal norms and find community among other people who have taken time to recognize that they, too, are troubled;  these same institutions constantly remind  and push their adherents to practice compassion and strive for moral excellence while giving them a broad sense of cosmic perspective. We need those reminders and encouragement, de Botton writes, because we are forgetful. Even if modernity wasn't actively pushing us into behaviors which are detrimental to our happiness and general well-being, our very nature incites us to wrath against those we love, our minds constantly bedevil us with worries that we then fixate on.  Although philosophy is an able guide and ally, as de Botton' own writings have demonstrated (see The Consolations of Philosophy, for instance),  we are at root social creatures, and find our best strength among one another: there is a reason Epicurus included companionship as part of his holy trinity of happiness (along with economic self-reliance/independence and mindfulness).

de Botton's goal is not to make extant religions attractive to nonbelievers, however much he may admire Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism. Instead, after divining out what makes them so successful and useful, he suggests ways for the nonreligious to capture its advantages.  This means changing existing ways secular progressives have sought to improve the human condition, art and education, by taking a note from religion and making them more meaningful, and thus more effective at communication.  Instead of organizing the study of art or literature by historicity or methods, why not arrange them by emotional theme; he inserts the layout of an existing London museum which exhibits have been reorganized into Galleries of Love,  Self-Knowledge, and Suffering, among others. University curriculums, too, could do with some priority-adjustment, as academics spend their lives studying increasingly esoteric questions, and devote no attention at all to figuring out what attitudes and practices best serve human relationships, or how to teach people to deal with the reality of Death.  From there de Botton's ideas broader support: he suggests temples to human virtues like Tenderness. Some of the ideas are fanciful, like a yearly recreation of the Feast of Fools, in which people are free to indulge with great abandon every passion and impulse of the flesh. (The illustration provided shows wanton public sex in the Agape Restaurant, which in a prior chapter had been the setting for relaxed conversations between people who were otherwise strangers, encouraged to talk about their lives and intimate hopes and fears.)  According to de Botton, this was an old medieval tradition, but it reminds me of nothing so much as a Star Trek episode, "The Return of the Archons", in which Kirk and co find themselves in a society filled with dour zombies who, once a week, go absolutely mad.

Most of the author's gentle suggestions would take a great deal of popular support and concern to institute, and so I imagine the book is more useful to skeptics trying to understand the power of religion than to humanist communities trying to create a more structured way of cultivating values and meaning. Those who attack religion should realize that it is these strengths they are attacking, not a simple, fervent belief in childhood credos. True or not, the great religions of the world deliver something of value to the world. To attack them is not only threaten people by going after sources of comfort and strength, but perhaps to succeed in doing so, and leave a vacuum to be filled with malignant consumerism or worse. Even if nonbelievers succeed in spreading the gospel of irreligion, those with any regard for humanity ought to be cognizant of the consequences, and go in knowing that we must give back more than we destroy.

Religion for Atheists is the best de Botton I've read in a long time, and a definite recommendation.

 How shall we comfort ourselves [...]?  What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?  (Ibid)

* Price now hosts 'The Human Bible', which examines the Bible as literature, history, and philosophy, his intention being to coax skeptics, freethinkers, and co into appreciating it for its own human merits, instead of recoiling from it as the tool of dogma.  The show is on temporary hiatus while a new producer is found, but Price also independently creates The Bible Geek, in which he fields questions about biblical and religious history.


  1. It sounds like yet another cake-and-eating-it book.

    Won't taking all of the good bits out of religion and leaving behind the bad bits change everything beyond recognition? Don't non-religious organisations do a lot of that already?

    Personally I think that we can all move beyond religion without the world falling apart around our ears - if only we had the intelligence and drive to do so.

  2. Which nonreligious organizations are you referring to? One of de Botton's observations is that while we've tried to create institutions which do religion's old jobs, we're not doing them as well, so his suggestion is that we borrow a few more religious practices without the beliefs of the religions themselves. Perhaps we're trying to reinvent the wheel when we can take religion's wheel, and just use it to go in a different direction.

  3. I was thinking of Charities, other similar organisations and of course the State which does a lot of the things religion used to do - specially education and social care.

  4. The author's emphasis is on 'spiritual' matters rather than material aide. I'm sure he probably regards social programs as more effective than church charities. He touches on education in the book, thinking modern education too distracted by merely academic matters rather than human concerns.

    As far as social care...I once read a line that commented on the rise of psychiatrists, juxtaposed with the decline of communal social activities (it may have been Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone") saying that we had 'outsourced friendship'. It seemed a chilling though...I'd rather find emotional support among people who knew me rather than a detached stranger with a fondness for writing prescriptions.

  5. I've been struggling with this issue lately. I had faith, lost it, and am now searching for answers to the Big Picture. This book seems like it would fit into my frame of mind at the moment, so I Amazoned it. Thanks for your review!

  6. sc said: The author's emphasis is on 'spiritual' matters rather than material aide.

    I don't understand how non-spiritual organisations can provide spiritual or even 'spiritual' care. Isn't that a major reason religious organisations exist in the first place - to provide for a perceived spiritual need? As long as the apparent need exists then religions will exist. Without the need their is no great requirement for religion nor for non-religious organisations to meet a need that no longer exists....

    I'm confused..... (which is nothing new actually!)

  7. Spirituality is a squirrelly word, but for me part of the enduring appeal of humanism is that it speaks to inward matters -- feelings of connectedness, well-being, virtue, the good life, etc -- without appeal to supernaturalistic religious claims, to something outside the human domain. I wish there were a better word than spirituality, one that wasn't carrying religious baggage, but there isn't to the best of my knowledge. Towards the end de Botton covers Emile Durkheim's invented religion of humanity and seems somewhat mournful that it was never put into effect. For my own part I'm skeptical of that -- it seems too contrived, too forced. I'm all for focusing what we have more intently at our needs, though. The greatest value of this book is its honesty about our vulnerabilities.

  8. sc said: The greatest value of this book is its honesty about our vulnerabilities.

    I may have to read it at some point but I'm betting I'd be annoyed most of the time [grin]


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