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Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
Scott F. Parker meditates on Alain de Botton’s idea of religion without God.
Take Alain de Botton’s title literally. This is not a book for readers who are curious about the nature of metaphysics or the merits of faith: this is a book for atheists. De Botton himself doesn’t bother to debunk the ontological, teleological or other arguments for the existence of a deity. Rather, he brackets such familiar philosophical debates off to the side. Religion for Atheists opens with “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” Instead, making his starting point the assumption that God is a human creation, de Botton asks the more interesting and productive questions, How might we best live in this world? and Does religion nevertheless offer any benefits that secular life still lacks?
The nature of these questions and the existence of the book itself should be enough for the reader to infer that de Botton does think religion has something to offer secularists: “The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed” as he says on p.12. One of the pleasures of reading the book is to learn exactly what de Botton thinks the worthwhile aspects of religion are. In a way, this book is also somewhat of a corrective to the New Atheists, who are regularly (and sometimes unfairly) charged with making the kind of baby-with-bathwater mistake de Botton is criticizing here. His argument is that in “letting go entirely of a host of consoling, subtle or just charming rituals for which we struggle to find equivalents in secular society… we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm” (p.15). So borrowing forms from religion, de Botton thinks, will allow atheists to nurture the areas of experience they’ve ignored without having to buy into religious mythology. Religion for Atheists, is a level-headed work which engages those cultural facets of religion that can be defended and adopted by sober, rational, critical analysis. The book largely ignores the kind of subjective religious experience that William James found at the heart of all religion – the promotion of which New Atheist Sam Harris sees as one of religion’s only positive contributions to human flourishing.
In foregoing the mystical, de Botton precludes for himself a complete picture of religion. But then, Religion for Atheists isn’t really a religious work, it’s a political one. De Botton’s ambition here, advanced gently and with great style, is nothing less than a complete remake of society. He imagines billboards promoting virtues such as forgiveness, museums with exhibits organized thematically around suffering and compassion, and restaurants designed to create and solidify community on the model of the Eucharist.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider de Botton’s analysis of two cultural wellsprings that secular society unapologetically shares with religion: art and education. He reads these paradigmatic sources of value and meaning for the Western liberal tradition as noble enterprises that have failed to deliver on their promises to turn us into better people – not because of substantial shortcomings in their content, but because of an inability to package their substantial lessons in a manner that would most benefit us. What religious art and religious education have that their secular counterparts lack because of their commitment to ideological neutrality, is an underlying orientation – an essential outlook that they seek to enthusiastically advance.
One problem with modeling secular institutions after institutions founded on dogmatic worldviews is that this leads headlong into the problem of authority: What is the source of the values we would like to see advanced, and who would do the advancing? Even if atheists are persuaded by religion’s methods, to what extent and how would these methods best be applied? As inspiring as de Botton’s vision is for those who feel that modern society, in its hard materialistic drive toward self-indulgence, is corrosive to the highest parts of our nature, the practical next steps are underdeveloped. How does one arrange a society around the virtues of secular humanism without inviting state or other coercion, for instance?
A less over-reaching, and more reachable, solution might be for sympathetic readers to take de Botton’s own broad approach and apply it on smaller scales, forming secular institutions, like de Botton’s own School of Life, which promote shared core values, or perhaps engaging with religions such as the Unitarian Universalist Church or certain sects of Buddhism, which make no claims to the supernatural. In such environments, one might be afforded some of the benefits of devotion without being encumbered with a belief in the supernatural. This, after all, reflects de Botton’s primary view of religion – as a self-help enterprise.
De Botton’s positivistic approach, which denies metaphysical claims out of hand, and ignores the evidence of subjective experience altogether, makes for an unapologetically superficial look at religion. For his intended audience this won’t be a problem. The challenge is whether his secular religious superstructure can support a core composed of critical doubt rather than belief, and whether it yields a psychological relief for atheists analogous to what many religious people gain by believing in life after death, that there is an intrinsic order to the world, that there is Someone in control, and that they know the Truth. We secularists have a hard time gaining this level of assurance, but for those who reject religion maybe that’s all we can hope for. But a secular stance that doesn’t back down from the most important questions in life could help atheists find what so many theists gather from their religions – meaning.
© Scott F. Parker 2012
Scott Parker’s books include Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir, and Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate.
• Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton, Pantheon Books, 2012, 320 pages, £18.99/$26.95 hb, ISBN 978-0307379108.