Is religion for atheists? Religion is where people go to find traditions, rites, sacraments, and community. To be connected to something bigger than oneself, just join a church. Christians have, after all, forged educational institutions, hospitals, and charitable organizations. And while these things are not the sum-total of what it means to be religious—there is Jesus or proprietary teachings on the meaning of life—religion can no longer claim to be the only place with all of these other benefits.
At least, that is what atheists like Alain de Botton hope to be the case.
The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
I’ve never read a book like Religion for Atheists. It has the appeal of a philosophical treatise, ruminating on beauty and truth and the purpose of art and humanity. At 320 daring pages, itventures to cover everything from community and kindness to architecture and institutions. Oddly, there are black and white illustrations on nearly every-other page and there is a strange absence of bibliography. Its message is not the usual atheist fare, but then again, Alain de Botton is not your usual atheist.
Raised in a strong atheist household who pitied the religious as those with a “degenerative disease,” de Botton underwent a crisis of faithlessness in his mid-twenties after listening to Bach’s cantatas and encountering Zen architecture. He says he “never wavered” from his “certainty that God did not exist,” but that after his father’s death, he was “simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion,” sans all the “supernatural” material. “I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths,” he writes.
Not only should the secular community enjoy the novelties of religion, according to de Botton, they should also benefit from some of the insights religion has to offer on good conduct and maintaining peace. He sees religion as often successful in these areas and wonders if secularism could learn from them.
We will never discover cast-iron rules of good conduct which will answer every question that might arise about how human beings can live peacefully and well together. However, a lack of absolute agreement on the good life should not in itself be enough to disqualify us from investigating and promoting the theoretical notion of such a life.
This fascination with finding potential benefits in religion is what drew me to pick up this book. Many atheists prefer to toss anything religious to the trash heaps and judging from a few reactions online, some have considered as much for Religion for Atheists. Alain de Botton, however, is taking a nuanced approach, reminiscent of the oft-used Christian metaphor of “plundering the Egyptians.” “The wisdom of faiths belong to all mankind, even the most rational among us,” he writes, “and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies.”
There are many intriguing observations in Religion for Atheists; consider his contrasting of the lectern and the pulpit: “secular education delivers lectures, Christianity sermons. Expressed in terms of intent, we might say that one is concerned with imparting information, the other with changing our lives.” While not all would agree with this distinction, the latter, changing lives, is what de Botton wishes to see driving the secular message. He even proposes a re-writing of the curriculum of higher education with that goal in mind.
There are also moments when one gets the impression that de Botton is romanticizing religious communities, like an anthropologist who finds the customs of indigenous peoples to be quaint, even adopting them with the hope of capturing that perceived simplicity.
There are also a few odd moments. His appropriation of the Christian Feast of Fools from medieval France—portrayed as a time of reveling, orgies, and mockery—as something that could be a modern tool for release appears out of the blue and stands as a strong primal and carnal contrast to the lofty ideals found throughout the book. “We should be allowed to…set out into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers,” he writes, “and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar, both sides knowing that it was nothing personal, that it was the Feast of Fools that made them do it.” Surely not every atheist will embrace this idea, nor is it really reflective of religion overall.
Lastly, for those atheists who found religion to be abusive—as often appears to be case among American atheists—anything that even remotely looks like it, will produce a visceral reaction. For these, de Botton is simply another accommodationist, giving religion more praise than is due. However, for the atheist who is interested in dialogue with the religious, what de Botton envisions could provide an event horizon for discussion.
In any case, he is not likely to find a universally satisfied reception and that might not be surprising. There may be a form of secular ecumenism based on a statement of non-belief, but being an atheist means living free and embracing individuality.
It would be no surprise, then, to find de Botton-esque groups on one street corner, meeting in an old abandoned Episcopal church. There they hold regular meetings, affirming those intellectual commitments that they have in common, and sealing the deal in incense and a shared meal. And two blocks away, maybe there will be ex-pats of fundamentalism, finding solace in whatever does not remind them of their past.
So is religion for atheists? Secularism may one day be the place where people go to find traditions, rites, “sacraments,” and community. To be connected to something bigger than oneself, just join a local gathering. They have, after all, forged educational institutions, hospitals, and charitable organizations. And while these things are not the sum-total of what it means to be secular—there is science and freedom of thought—religion has real competition, and can no longer rest on its laurels.
For more, see Alain de Botton discuss his ideas at TED.