Religion for Atheists: a Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Alain de Botton (2012, Pantheon)
Of late, there are plenty of famous books about what may be toxic, or false, about religion. In Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain de Botton offers a gentle rejoinder, still from an atheist’s perspective: perhaps there is a baby in with all that bathwater. The book is a beautiful and elaborate thought experiment about the way our social institutions might be reshaped to meet the needs our churches used to meet. People living in a rational, non-theistic society still need ways to live in community, to search out and transmit moral ideas, and to assuage the fears and worries that come with living on earth.
De Botton’s examples of religion are chosen from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism - if you care about the differences, you’ll have to fill in those blanks yourself. It’s good to take that step back, though, because it’s the big picture that matters. He’s talking about the qualities a Catholic Mass, a Jewish seder, and a Buddhist tea ceremony have in common. Their ritualized character has a protective effect: “In essence, religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy.”
In communities, we injure and abuse each other in ways large and small. There is, as yet, no secular equivalent to the Jewish Day of Atonement, though de Botton thinks it might be a good thing if there were. It’s not that he believes the religious laws about how to treat each other arise from anything more than human nature and experience. Ascribing them to divine sources, and forgetting we did so, is just what people are apt to do. “But if we can now own up to spiritualizing our ethical laws,” de Botton says, “we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so.”
Those exhortations could conceivably come from existing cultural stores. We could make inspirational saints of our literary and political heroes, mentally engaging with their examples of courage and selflessness. We could read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for instruction in the mysteries of marriage–though, as de Botton admits, the educational system we currently have is very poorly configured for that kind of instruction, being so determinedly value-free. “We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission: to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live. And we have left the second of these two aims recklessly vague and unattended.”
Architecture comes in for similar contemplation: what could we supply ourselves with that could supply the sense of perspective found in a great cathedral? “Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.” If we had the right point of view, seeing the ocean or the stars could have that effect for us; we should be looking for, or creating, rituals and sacred spaces through which to have that experience.
As for art, imagine a museum that put Mary Cassatt’s paintings of mothers and children side by side with the great visions of the Madonna and Child, to give us a sensual experience that connects to our longing for nurture and comfort. Atheists, de Botton says, are sometimes inclined to deride that longing as irrational and childish, when in fact it’s profoundly human. “That there is no sympathetic mother or caring father out there who can make everything all right for us is no reason to deny how strongly we wish that there could be.”
Some of the prescriptions in Religion for Atheists seem as though they might be possible, while others can scarcely be imagined, like the travel agent who would prescribe the right destinations for our spiritual ills. Very few secular organizations have attained the longevity or cultural sway of our major religious institutions, and the book does a good job of explaining why that is. It’s also very beautifully written, and handsomely produced. You wouldn’t have to be an atheist to enjoy it.