What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false—but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world.
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it—because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, de Botton (a non-believer himself) proposes that we look to religion for insights into how to, among other concerns, build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world.
For too long non-believers have faced a stark choice between either swallowing some peculiar doctrines or doing away with a range of consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas. At last, in Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton has fashioned a far more interesting and truly helpful alternative.
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Nevertheless this is a good book, and you should read it.
Why? Because for all its omissions of fact and lapses in rigour, de Botton is onto something here. He takes as his starting point a shared presumption that no religions are true - this is a book for atheists and agnostics, not believers - but argues that religion, as a human artefact still in use after tens of thousands of years, must be getting some things right.
He examines this premise by looking at how religion structures and lends weight to our sense of community, our approach to education, the transformative powers of art and architecture, and the institutionalisation of core precepts and plans. Religion, by being about more than just the individual, confers a sense of perspective and (paradoxically perhaps) longevity. Ritual and repetition are useful constructs to help us both contemplate and internalise the lessons we learn as we go through life, and to become better people along the way.
The central thrust of his argument is that the structures of religion help us transmute knowledge into wisdom, collected facts into considered purpose, individual effort into shared endeavour, and beauty into transcendence - and if we reject those structures, simply because they are religious in origin, we lose a significant portion of our own cultural and social heritage. So he posits an appropriation of religion's structured, ritualised approach to the business of living into the secular sphere where, devoid of superstition, it can still meet our many and varied emotional and organisational needs.
You may argue that we don't need this structure, that your sense of self and community and purpose are just fine, thank you, and that the last two centuries' shift towards more individualistic, morally relative, non-judgemental societies is just as it should be. I for one have no wish to turn back the clock; I cherish my individual freedom and right to self-determination, society's growing intolerance of intolerance, and the breadth of thought, daring and ambition that is the birthright of the 21st century. But it is also true that in our headlong rush into the future we are in danger of dismissing the totality of social structures and cultural mores of the past as being of no value or relevance. This would be a mistake. De Botton deserves credit for trying to start a rational conversation about how to take the best bits with us.more
I even heard some interviews with him that sounded interesting so yay, I was looking forward to it.
But then I get all these mini essays that sort of glancingly touch on a topic here or there without actually getting to grips with any of them. And he says he's just batting about some ideas, so okay fair enough I guess, but then that's really not a book, is it? Its more like a blog or a column or an essay series eh? I'd like a book to add up to a bit more.
Mostly though I just became unendurably annoyed at being lectured about what "we" think, and what "we" feel, and hey Kimosabe, maybe you think that its comforting to know that you are a sinner so its okay if you mess up, or maybe you yearn for a father figure to lay down the law and tell you what to do, and maybe you find art ultimately unsatisfying or whatever else it is you feel. But I guess I'm not you because I don't. And every time you told me "we" feel thus and so, when "I" did not, I found myself more and more distanced, until I was distanced right out of any desire to participate further.
Which is a pity because I thought the topic idea was splendiferous.
So in the end I was left with, great idea, execution fell utterly flat for me.more