Book Review: Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon Books, New York, 2012

Alain de Botton thinks religion is too useful to be left entirely to the religious. In his latest book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion, he looks at some of the “best bits” of religion that he thinks can help non-believers live better lives.

My reading of the book was helped by having heard two presentations by the author: a talk he gave a few weeks ago here in Seattle sponsored by Seattle Arts and Lectures; and his excellent TED Talk Atheism 2.0. Here’s my review.

De Botton is an avowed atheist, but he wants to move beyond today’s strident debate about the existence of God. (In his Seattle talk, he characterized this as a debate between two equally condescending sides: believers looking down on atheists as damned; and atheists looking down on believers as stupid.) Instead, de Botton wants to focus on the more important and practical questions of how we should live our lives.

Religions, he says, satisfy two central human needs:

“… first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.” p. 12

De Botton believes there are elements of religious practices, methods and structures which, stripped of their supernatural content, are still useful to secular society. Humans need guidance, morality and consolation, and religions have worked out over centuries how to provide these effectively. They do a much better job than secular society and so de Botton irreverently suggest we “steal” these ideas and practices from religion.

The bulk of the book is devoted to examining different aspects of religion that secular society should emulate with some suggestions (not always practical in my view) about how this could be done.

Community: One of the most common laments about modern secular society is that we’ve lost our sense of community. We live in big cities surrounded by millions of strangers. We often don’t know our closest neighbors. It’s rare to form new friendships after the age of 30. Government agencies perform many of the functions formerly carried out by communities. For many of us, the closest we come to community is through our work associates. Religions, by contrast, are particularly adept at building community. Common beliefs and practices help form communal bonds among their members. Religions provide safe spaces – buildings – in which to meet strangers and to develop new friendships. They provide rituals and practices for offering each other comfort and mutual support. While communities can sometimes be oppressive and insular, imposing nonsensical rules and brutally enforcing conformity, secular society needs institutions and practices designed to foster community.

Guidance: Ethics originated in the need of early societies to control human tendencies towards violence. So ideas like patience and forgiveness developed, as well as a recognition that we are all flawed and thus all in need of rules and guidance. Today, the legal system takes care of enforcing rules against violent and criminal behavior. But religions go well beyond the law. Religions, de Botton says, recognize that the state intervenes too late, that in order to prevent bad behavior we need much more detailed guidance about how to behave towards each other; acting with kindness, humility, and charity for example. In other words, religions provide detailed instructions on positive behaviors, as well as injunctions against negative ones.

De Botton says we still need this detailed guidance in order to reduce the cruelty, humiliation and rudeness that are part of daily life. We need to act, as religions teach us,  with kindness towards each other.

De Botton doesn’t mention it, but many corporations already do this.  They have codes of behavior – sometimes called “company values” – that tell employees how to act at work. Their purpose is the smooth and efficient functioning of the organization, rather than society as a whole, but the idea is the same. Inside corporations and other large organizations, people of many different backgrounds, religions, and origins are expected to work together cooperatively to reach organizational goals. Company values, while at times sounding like feel-good drivel from Human Resources, are intended to enable this.

Education: Both religion and secular society view education as critically important. They conceive of it, and deliver it, in radically different ways. The difference begins with how they view us, the students. Secular universities, de Botton says, believe we are basically mature, rational, capable people and that what we need is information, especially information that will help us obtain a well-paying job. So the university sees its purpose as mainly to provide information. It does this primarily through lectures.

Religions, on the other hand, view us essentially as children, deeply flawed children, who need strong guidance and constant reminding. They view the purpose of education as teaching use how to lead good lives and how to be better people. They do this in a variety of ways, through sermons, for example, delivered with skilled oratory. (De Botton suggests that university professors could benefit from time spent studying the techniques of Pentecostal preachers.) Religions also structure time, using the calendar to give us annual reminders of certain events, or people, and related moral lessons so we will encounter them at least once each year. Lastly, through rituals – physical actions – religions teach not just through the intellect, but through the body as well.

Universities have long since abandoned the task of teaching wisdom and how to live a good life. Religions focus on this, and are well-organized for it.

Tenderness: During times of crisis, setback or defeat, humans need consolation, reassurance and tenderness. Atheism doesn’t acknowledge this need or sees it as something we should grow out of. Religions provide consolation, often through a mother figure, such as Christianity’s Mary, because they recognize childhood needs persist into adult life.

It’s also because religions take a more pessimistic view of our prospects for success and happiness than we do in the secular world. Religions often postpone happiness until the next life or the afterlife. They provide comfort by publicly acknowledging that we are not alone in our suffering and our troubles.

Perspective: De Botton believes we suffer from “insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.” Most of us end up disappointed, humiliated, and defeated by the struggles and cruelties of life. In order that our egos do not get the better of us, religions provide gentle reminders of our insignificance. Often this is done by reminding us of the incomprehensibility of the universe and thus the impossibility of understanding God or God’s “mysterious ways.” Looking at the moon and the stars, de Botton suggests, could be a secular version of the same thing. In a strange way, we find comfort in knowing that our problems, worries, and setbacks, large though they may seem to us, are in fact insignificant at the scale of the universe.

Art: As with education, secular society puts a high value on art. De Botton notes that museums have become our new churches. But, he says, museums present art as something that needs to be understood through the intellect rather than felt. They are not designed to provide the visitor with a coherent experience. de Botton suggests museums and galleries should arrange art by subject matter – beauty, love, forgiveness, etc. – not by artist or period or country of origin.

For religion, art is part and parcel of the educative, sermonizing function. It appeals to both reason and the senses. Religious art is designed to remind us of key religious teachings; what we should worship and love, fear and avoid; that we are not alone in our suffering. We should emulate religions and use art to remind us how to be good, wise, and compassionate.

Institutions: Lastly, individuals writing books have very limited power, de Botton admits. What secular society needs are institutions, analogous to religions ones, that cater to people’s spiritual needs. Institutions provide structure, consistency, continuity, branding and scale.

Unsolicited Feedback

De Botton is a much livelier and wittier speaker than writer. The book is a little stuffier, a little more academic and a lot less humorous than his spoken presentations. His outlook is a lot more somber too. His views about our prospects for achievement, happiness and leading a good life seem very much in line with those of Judaism and Christianity from which he borrows a good many ideas and practices.

That said, I like the main idea of the book, that religions meet certain human needs quite well, and that while secular society may discard the supernatural elements of religion, we should not throw out the baby with the holy water, so to speak.

There are two main problems with Religion for Atheists, as I see it. The first is that it doesn’t hang together. De Botton freely even gleefully admits he’s serving up religion à la carte. He also says he’s deliberately trying to avoid the mistakes of the “intermittently sane” French sociologist Auguste Comte who attempted to form a new secular religion during the 1800’s. The advantage of this approach is that he’s able to sift through different religions to find elements that can be useful and beneficial to everyone. The problem is the net result is a grab-bag of practices and structures. It’s not clear if or how they are supposed to fit together. By contrast religions excel at packaging up these elements into a coherent whole.

There are some glaring omissions too. For example, de Botton doesn’t address the question of transcendence – the idea of connecting to something greater than ourselves – which is central to almost all religions and from which many people draw purpose and meaning for their lives.

The second problem with the book is that most of it cannot be put into practice by individuals, families or even small groups. Actual implementation of de Botton’s ideas requires large, established communities or institutions, and a great deal of capital. For example, his idea about reorganizing museums along thematic lines; interesting, but in the absence of any museums structured in this way, what can we do as individuals and families?

There’s a certain “you can’t get there from here” quality to Religion for Atheists. Without these quasi-religious institutions, atheists and other non-believers are unlikely to find the morality, guidance and consolation de Botton quite correctly says we all need by merely cherry-picking from religion.

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