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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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It would be easy to pick apart Alain de Botton's manifesto on the usefulness of religion, and indeed I'm left wishing that he had not left quite so many obvious holes through which grenades can easily be lobbed. In his generally insightful analysis of the benefits a secular society (or more specifically, secular citizens) can achieve by appropriating the mechanisms and approaches of religion, he often writes 'down' to his fellow nonbelievers, as though we were not just occasionally but always bereft of structure, guidance and certainty about how to live our lives well. He limits his examples to the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, ignoring the juggernaut that is Islamic culture as well as the less globally prominent, but no less socially significant practices of the Hindu, Shinto and animist religions. He doesn't seem to acknowledge (maybe, as a lifelong atheist, he isn't acutely aware of the fact) that religions and the religious often fail to live up to their own declared ideals and can be just as petty, grandiose, directionless and poorly grounded as the rest of us. And he virtually ignores some of the aspects of human existence that religion does deal with particularly well, such as loss and grief, in favour of a focus on more nebulous characteristics like tenderness and pessimism.

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
This one lost me over excessive use of the first person plural. I really liked the idea, of exploring what religions are useful for, what social, and emotional and spiritual purposes they serve and how those might be retained even if you're an unbeliever who can't bring herself to sign on to the spaghetti monster in the sky mythos. Cool interesting yes please I'd like very much to talk and think more about that!!

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
Even if we no longer believe in the supernatural, secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics can benefit from the moral, social, aesthetic, and therapeutic examples of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism.This book will probably infuriate the new atheists. But if you are open-minded enough to know that science is not the sole source of wisdom, this thought provoking book is for you.more
Religion for Atheists tries to show to atheists how many of the standard practices of religions could be useful to non-believers once stripped from the belief in a supernatural daddy in the sky. As a raised Roman Catholic and convinced atheist, I have always had a fascination for religions (I actually have a bible next to my bed, but note the non capital b). But when I first heard of this book, the summary presented of the ideas didn't really inspire me to actually read the book. The ideas I remember from the reviews where mostly about "secular temples" and how atheists could benefit from certain rituals around their central tenets. It all sounded rather superficial to me. Still after getting it recommended again and again, I spent some time on reading it. A great investment, I must admit.The chapters of the book all focus on a different aspect of what religions (try to) bring to their followers and that secular society seems to have trouble providing. Think: Community, Kindness, Education (in how to live your life, not in molecular structures or agricultural techniques In medieval Portugal). The author tries to come up with some very concrete proposals for how we cold implement the centuries of experience from the religions of the world into our lives. Of course, these concrete proposals are what made the reviews, because they can easily be explained in a paragraph. However, I found the less concrete insights far more interesting and even inspiring. Especially the chapters on Kindness (why do we in liberal society make only the binary distinction between legal and illegal, and did we drop concepts of virtue and lesser sins, like helpfulness and jealousy?), Tenderness (on how we, deep inside, do not always want to be responsible adults and therefore need to be comforted and patronised every now and then) and Perspective (mostly as an antidote to entitlement) struck a chord with me. Others (Art, Architecture, Institutions) couldn't quite convince me or where even boring. It could of course be the case that some practices of religions are useful to us while others are only useful to the religions themselves and to the people in charge in those institutions. For example the stress in most religions on not questioning authority (be it priests or the origins of the holy booklet) are not great inventions that we should try to bolt onto our atheist world view. They where great inventions for maintaining a status quo, benificial to only the leaders of the status quo.De Botton seems to have some good points of view and I am glad that I took the time to read this book, but he seems to have fallen in love with the idea "if religions do it, it must be good for the relious". A slightly more critical view there would be appropriate.more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Regular readers know that I've been on a bit of a reading kick for contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, ever since hearing him impressively speak on a recent episode of the "On Being" podcast; and after first tackling his older book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I thought I'd now skip ahead and review one of his latest, the 2011 practical self-help book Religion for Atheists which had been the whole reason he was on the "On Being" podcast in the first place. (And in fact, de Botton has really put his money where his mouth is with this book, recently opening a literal "church for atheists" in a storefront space in central London called The School of Life; and it's technically that that he was on the podcast to promote.) The title basically describes the entire argument of the book -- that there are plenty of secular functions and roles that organized religion provides society, apart and away from its spiritual aspects, that atheists would be wise to adopt in their own lives for more happiness -- and while some of these roles are pretty easy to guess at (providing a sense of ritual in our lives, providing a communal space for like-minded individuals), there are others here that come as a pleasing surprise; for example, that religions provide an excuse for people to design moral codes of behavior that all who attend must adhere to (or in other words, think about how nice it'd be at your next dinner party to be able to declare your apartment a "hipster-douchebag-free zone" or to ban all talk about politics), or that religions provide a way to aesthetically celebrate the lessons in life that are most important for us. A thought-provoking book, but one always grounded in practical advice on how to actually implement these changes in real life, it comes strongly recommended to all my fellow atheists, and I can guarantee that some of its lessons will have a strong impact on the way that CCLaP runs its eventual physical headquarters here in Chicago.Out of 10: 9.1more
An erudite atheist, de Botton makes a good case for religion. Not for the belief in god or the supernatural, but the basic fact that humans invented religion and carried it down through the ages that it must serve some good purpose. In this book he proposes adapting some of the best elements of religion to secular purposes. In chapters on subjects such as community, kindness, perspective, art, architecture, education, and institutions he identifies the best of religion and make proposals for how these things may be adapted. For example, he proposes agape restaurants where people dine and converse with strangers and universities where people read books to learn from their emotional content instead of literary analysis. At times the ideas are silly, but I really like de Botton's approach and open mind. As a religious person myself, I find that extreme atheists (really, anti-theist bigots) are one side of the same coin of religious fundamentalist. It's good to have ideas that move beyond the tired arguments of the extremes and work toward the betterment of humanity.more
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton tries to move along the age old debate between believers and agnostics regarding relevance and truth, by suggesting we need to learn or ‘cherry pick’ those ideas, rituals and institutions that can assist each and every one of us live our lives with greater fulfilment in this modern age.The overriding premise of the book is one that I am attracted too but sadly the author’s argument seems to fall a little flat in the end. Unfortunately I cannot agree with or even see value in several of his many resolutions to life’s illsAs an example he proposes an “agape” restaurant where people sit, eat and converse (and a bit more once a year!) with strangers who are totally outside their social circle. I’m afraid human nature being what it is would instantly turn this idea into nothing more than novelty value… and definitely something that wouldn’t last much beyond the next economic downturn. Another suggestion is to take the focus of our tertiary institutions from that of solely providing a technical education to include far greater levels of emotional and reflective studies… I’m sure that would go down a treat with many undergraduates hankering to get their careers underway!I think with a little learning, openness and contemplation we can all see the beauty the worlds many religions offer humanity … I’m just not too sure the author’s proposals are in any way practicable. I give it a solid three stars for the argument and as ever the author’s fluid writing style.more
I found this thought provoking. Now while I find the assertion by some Atheists that a logical conclusion of their (dis)belief will be that everyone will embrace the same disbelief as misguided, I also see that many people remain with their religion unthinkingly because of some of the things listed in this book. Community, ritual, purpose, hope. However, just like there isn't one religion I don't think that any one answer will work for everyone.This book is a dialogue that needs to happen. People need to examine what is in their religion for them and decide in better ways to make it work for them. I can also see a role for leaders within any community group to help with situations, call them what you will, but if someone has to take time out from their lives to visit the sick, bury the dead, console the living etc., they deserve recompense for the disruption in their lives. But they also need oversight and accountability to prevent some of the excesses and ills of existing religions.What isn't mentioned really in the book: Life cycle rituals beyond death and marriage, there's also birth, the welcoming of a child into a community; Menarche/puberty rituals; a ritual for becoming 18 or 21 or both that doesn't necessarily include getting insanely drunk; even a divorce ritual or a ritual to celebrate a return to work after an illness. The focus of his commentary is on Buddhism, Christianity and Judiasm and there's an implied absolute universality in ritual experience that isn't true from my experience of Christianity. While the framework of the religions are the same the experiences are different (as I discovered when I was talking to a US Catholic). His research also missed a building dialogue among some thinking pagans about the seasons of the year and the formulised feastdays that need to be changed to better reflect local variations and experiences. That mining local culture rather than slavishly adopting another set of customs and practices, not that some won't adopt other practices that suit them.It got a lot of extra marks for making me think but I don't think he's thinking much outside personal experience. It's also a pity that he isn't being more general in his addressing of people, this book needs to be debated by Theists as well as Atheists. I will probably add more to this review as I digest what he was saying.more
I read the book in the dutch translation. The first chapter promised that this book would tell me how to use the good parts of religions. But it turns out to be a book from a religion fanatic. Everything the religions do is good and everything that atheists do is wrong. Mr. de Botton is like an american television pastor who wants to convert atheists into believers, preferably into jews. His arguments are very poor and his examples are not to the point. It was really difficult to read the whole book. My advice: if you are interested in religion you better read the bible than this book!more
For me, Alain de Botton’s highly visible career as a public intellectual represents a personal journey as well. He took the path I wish I had pursued, as he did, much earlier in life. Therefore, here, I will not only review his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), but also chart the significance of this journey. Alain and I are intellectuals of the same generation, similar formation—in philosophy and literature—and with similar cultural ideals. Alain de Botton is one of the most vocal and prominent defenders of “a philosophy of everyday life”. He upholds the view--and shows by example, in each of his best-selling works--that philosophy and literature are not just for scholars or the intellectual elite. They are for everyone interested in taking some time off their busy schedules to enjoy the canonical works of Western philosophy and literature. If they read Alain de Botton’s books, they will be persuaded that—far from being dated or having a merely historical interest--these canonical works are still relevant to their daily lives. The ideal of engaging with philosophy and literature—let’s say, the wisdom of the ages--may seem perfect for an academic setting but, in my personal experience, I have found that for the most part it is not.Although there are some reputable scholars in the U.S. who write about important human issues in a way that is relevant to the general public and easy to understand without being simplistic—I’m thinking of Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Arthur Danto, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Victor Brombert and a handful of others—for the most part, scholarly writing tends to be too specialized to interest the general public. Furthermore, during the mid to late 1990’s, when I was going to graduate school, the fields of Comparative Literature, English, French and other languages were dominated by exceedingly specialized, arcane theories—loosely called “poststructuralist” or “postmodernist”--that rested upon questionable premises and widened the gap between the general public and scholarly writing in the arts and humanities. For a persuasive debunking of those theories, I’d recommend Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1997.Of course, there were and still are countless scholars in the Arts and Humanities—the vast majority perhaps--who write clearly about their areas of specialization and make important contributions to their fields. However, in most cases, their target audience is not, as it is for Alain de Botton, a general audience but rather a more restricted group of specialists. In my estimation, the specialized nature of scholarly writing combined with the predominance of arcane, trendy theories risked dooming literary studies to public irrelevance during the 1990’s.In this academic context, it took a lot of courage and a certain leap of faith for Alain de Botton to leave the academia (when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University) in order to become a public intellectual promoting philosophy and literature. While this goal would have been quite common for European intellectuals during the 1930’s and 40’s, when--to offer just one example out of many--the Existentialist movement had such a vast impact upon culture, this notion has become nearly obsolete nowadays. As difficult as it is to become a public intellectual in an academic setting—due to the two main reasons I mentioned earlier--it’s even more difficult to achieve this status outside the academia. Today the general public has been turned off by scholarship and, generally speaking, has little interest and time for intellectual pursuits.In an interview, Alain de Botton describes his choice to leave the academia in order to become a public intellectual as seizing the best opportunity: “In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.” To turn this expression around, what De Botton has offered the world is a genuine love of knowledge; a sense of the practical applications of canonical works and a clear; elegant explanations of some of the best-known Western novelists and philosophers. His efforts have been consistently rewarded with resounding success. His first book, Essays In Love (1993) became an instant bestseller. The Romantic Movement (1994), Kiss and Tell (1995) and--my personal favorite--How Proust Can Change your Life (1997) quickly followed suit, becoming equally popular with the public. Alain de Botton’s success is well earned, not only because of the quality and accessibility of his books, but also because he works hard to maintain his public status and connection to readers. He travels around the world for book launches and talks; connects with fans on Facebook and other public forums; gives lectures at TED conferences and even runs his own production company, called Seneca Productions that makes documentaries about his works. For him, being a public intellectual—let alone being a writer--is more than a full-time job. It’s a life passion.Despite its provocative title, his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), offers neither a polemical defense of religion for nonbelievers nor, conversely, a defense of atheism for believers. Rather, it’s the strongest and most compelling defense for humanist values I have read since Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity (1997). De Botton compellingly illustrates that religious principles and allegories should play an important role in modern secular society. His main thesis is that “we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: 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.” (Religion for Atheists, 12)In a way, De Botton expresses the secular contemporary version of “Pascal’s wager”. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal has famously stated in Pensées (1669) that since the existence of God can’t be proved or disproved, a rational person should bet that God exists and live “as though he had faith.” Then, logically speaking, if God exists he has everything to gain and if he doesn’t he has nothing to lose. Taking this kind of argument a step further, De Botton’s Religion for Atheists argues that even if we bet that God doesn’t exist, we should still adhere to some religious principles as if he did.What do we have to gain from “De Botton’s wager”, so to speak? First of all, religious principles and rituals—such as mass and other means of congregation—give us a sense of community. Without this, we risk becoming isolated, self-absorbed and alienated individuals. Religion also teaches us about the value of kindness and being other-regarding, which is as necessary for a sense of community as it is for modern marriages and family life. Religious figures and prophets, De Botton further pursues, offer us role models that are worth emulating. This is especially important in a media-driven culture that encourages us to admire athletes and actors, many of whom have questionable conduct and values. World religions also emphasize the role of education: not as a practical steppingstone to a pragmatic job, but as a way of growing emotionally and intellectually as individuals.Religion also teaches us a sense of modesty and reminds us of our limitations. Nothing brings this point home better than the problem of theodicy, or the question of why the suffering of innocents exists in a world governed by an omniscient and omnipotent divinity. The answer given by Christianity in The Book of Job, by Blaise Pascal, Simone Weil and even by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov comes down to the following thesis encapsulated by De Botton: “Fragile, limited creatures that [we] are, how can [we] possibly understand the ways of God?” (Religion for Atheists, 198) There are some things beyond human comprehension but our limitations should not be an excuse for hubris or for believing that we’re above morality.If I place De Botton’s important new book in the longstanding tradition of Western humanism, it’s because it underscores the importance of human ethical and social values that find their best expression through the invention of religion. Although postmodern critics, such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, have described themselves as “anti-humanists,” asserting that humanism posits overarching principles that lead to exclusion and hierarchy, Religion for Atheists demonstrates clearly and thoroughly why that’s not so. On the contrary, De Botton persuades us, we cannot exist harmoniously or happily as a secular society without respect for the religious principles and wisdom passed through the ages. Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalonmore
Changed my harsh opinion about religion (dir. "The three musketeers") completely. Thank you, Alain.more
same old de Botton, always looking for "consolations", formerly in philosophy (de Botton isn't very good at philosophy) and now in religion. The question is surely why anyone would need religion in the first place. Human beings, as social beings, buy into religion not like the distracted tourists in airport departure lounges who buy de Botton's books because they fancy something to read on the flight. There is an entire history of religion that explains why people might find "consolation" in it, usually involving justification for terror and exploitation, sometimes for social liberation. But this pick n mix consumer approach from de Botton is unconvincing mainly because it's what "non-believers" have been doing since the earliest religions, - ie hedging their bets by attending church just in case the village priest is right and God exists - which throws into doubt de Botton's simplistic distinction between belief and atheism. more
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Reviews

It would be easy to pick apart Alain de Botton's manifesto on the usefulness of religion, and indeed I'm left wishing that he had not left quite so many obvious holes through which grenades can easily be lobbed. In his generally insightful analysis of the benefits a secular society (or more specifically, secular citizens) can achieve by appropriating the mechanisms and approaches of religion, he often writes 'down' to his fellow nonbelievers, as though we were not just occasionally but always bereft of structure, guidance and certainty about how to live our lives well. He limits his examples to the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, ignoring the juggernaut that is Islamic culture as well as the less globally prominent, but no less socially significant practices of the Hindu, Shinto and animist religions. He doesn't seem to acknowledge (maybe, as a lifelong atheist, he isn't acutely aware of the fact) that religions and the religious often fail to live up to their own declared ideals and can be just as petty, grandiose, directionless and poorly grounded as the rest of us. And he virtually ignores some of the aspects of human existence that religion does deal with particularly well, such as loss and grief, in favour of a focus on more nebulous characteristics like tenderness and pessimism.

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
This one lost me over excessive use of the first person plural. I really liked the idea, of exploring what religions are useful for, what social, and emotional and spiritual purposes they serve and how those might be retained even if you're an unbeliever who can't bring herself to sign on to the spaghetti monster in the sky mythos. Cool interesting yes please I'd like very much to talk and think more about that!!

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
Even if we no longer believe in the supernatural, secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics can benefit from the moral, social, aesthetic, and therapeutic examples of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism.This book will probably infuriate the new atheists. But if you are open-minded enough to know that science is not the sole source of wisdom, this thought provoking book is for you.more
Religion for Atheists tries to show to atheists how many of the standard practices of religions could be useful to non-believers once stripped from the belief in a supernatural daddy in the sky. As a raised Roman Catholic and convinced atheist, I have always had a fascination for religions (I actually have a bible next to my bed, but note the non capital b). But when I first heard of this book, the summary presented of the ideas didn't really inspire me to actually read the book. The ideas I remember from the reviews where mostly about "secular temples" and how atheists could benefit from certain rituals around their central tenets. It all sounded rather superficial to me. Still after getting it recommended again and again, I spent some time on reading it. A great investment, I must admit.The chapters of the book all focus on a different aspect of what religions (try to) bring to their followers and that secular society seems to have trouble providing. Think: Community, Kindness, Education (in how to live your life, not in molecular structures or agricultural techniques In medieval Portugal). The author tries to come up with some very concrete proposals for how we cold implement the centuries of experience from the religions of the world into our lives. Of course, these concrete proposals are what made the reviews, because they can easily be explained in a paragraph. However, I found the less concrete insights far more interesting and even inspiring. Especially the chapters on Kindness (why do we in liberal society make only the binary distinction between legal and illegal, and did we drop concepts of virtue and lesser sins, like helpfulness and jealousy?), Tenderness (on how we, deep inside, do not always want to be responsible adults and therefore need to be comforted and patronised every now and then) and Perspective (mostly as an antidote to entitlement) struck a chord with me. Others (Art, Architecture, Institutions) couldn't quite convince me or where even boring. It could of course be the case that some practices of religions are useful to us while others are only useful to the religions themselves and to the people in charge in those institutions. For example the stress in most religions on not questioning authority (be it priests or the origins of the holy booklet) are not great inventions that we should try to bolt onto our atheist world view. They where great inventions for maintaining a status quo, benificial to only the leaders of the status quo.De Botton seems to have some good points of view and I am glad that I took the time to read this book, but he seems to have fallen in love with the idea "if religions do it, it must be good for the relious". A slightly more critical view there would be appropriate.more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Regular readers know that I've been on a bit of a reading kick for contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, ever since hearing him impressively speak on a recent episode of the "On Being" podcast; and after first tackling his older book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I thought I'd now skip ahead and review one of his latest, the 2011 practical self-help book Religion for Atheists which had been the whole reason he was on the "On Being" podcast in the first place. (And in fact, de Botton has really put his money where his mouth is with this book, recently opening a literal "church for atheists" in a storefront space in central London called The School of Life; and it's technically that that he was on the podcast to promote.) The title basically describes the entire argument of the book -- that there are plenty of secular functions and roles that organized religion provides society, apart and away from its spiritual aspects, that atheists would be wise to adopt in their own lives for more happiness -- and while some of these roles are pretty easy to guess at (providing a sense of ritual in our lives, providing a communal space for like-minded individuals), there are others here that come as a pleasing surprise; for example, that religions provide an excuse for people to design moral codes of behavior that all who attend must adhere to (or in other words, think about how nice it'd be at your next dinner party to be able to declare your apartment a "hipster-douchebag-free zone" or to ban all talk about politics), or that religions provide a way to aesthetically celebrate the lessons in life that are most important for us. A thought-provoking book, but one always grounded in practical advice on how to actually implement these changes in real life, it comes strongly recommended to all my fellow atheists, and I can guarantee that some of its lessons will have a strong impact on the way that CCLaP runs its eventual physical headquarters here in Chicago.Out of 10: 9.1more
An erudite atheist, de Botton makes a good case for religion. Not for the belief in god or the supernatural, but the basic fact that humans invented religion and carried it down through the ages that it must serve some good purpose. In this book he proposes adapting some of the best elements of religion to secular purposes. In chapters on subjects such as community, kindness, perspective, art, architecture, education, and institutions he identifies the best of religion and make proposals for how these things may be adapted. For example, he proposes agape restaurants where people dine and converse with strangers and universities where people read books to learn from their emotional content instead of literary analysis. At times the ideas are silly, but I really like de Botton's approach and open mind. As a religious person myself, I find that extreme atheists (really, anti-theist bigots) are one side of the same coin of religious fundamentalist. It's good to have ideas that move beyond the tired arguments of the extremes and work toward the betterment of humanity.more
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton tries to move along the age old debate between believers and agnostics regarding relevance and truth, by suggesting we need to learn or ‘cherry pick’ those ideas, rituals and institutions that can assist each and every one of us live our lives with greater fulfilment in this modern age.The overriding premise of the book is one that I am attracted too but sadly the author’s argument seems to fall a little flat in the end. Unfortunately I cannot agree with or even see value in several of his many resolutions to life’s illsAs an example he proposes an “agape” restaurant where people sit, eat and converse (and a bit more once a year!) with strangers who are totally outside their social circle. I’m afraid human nature being what it is would instantly turn this idea into nothing more than novelty value… and definitely something that wouldn’t last much beyond the next economic downturn. Another suggestion is to take the focus of our tertiary institutions from that of solely providing a technical education to include far greater levels of emotional and reflective studies… I’m sure that would go down a treat with many undergraduates hankering to get their careers underway!I think with a little learning, openness and contemplation we can all see the beauty the worlds many religions offer humanity … I’m just not too sure the author’s proposals are in any way practicable. I give it a solid three stars for the argument and as ever the author’s fluid writing style.more
I found this thought provoking. Now while I find the assertion by some Atheists that a logical conclusion of their (dis)belief will be that everyone will embrace the same disbelief as misguided, I also see that many people remain with their religion unthinkingly because of some of the things listed in this book. Community, ritual, purpose, hope. However, just like there isn't one religion I don't think that any one answer will work for everyone.This book is a dialogue that needs to happen. People need to examine what is in their religion for them and decide in better ways to make it work for them. I can also see a role for leaders within any community group to help with situations, call them what you will, but if someone has to take time out from their lives to visit the sick, bury the dead, console the living etc., they deserve recompense for the disruption in their lives. But they also need oversight and accountability to prevent some of the excesses and ills of existing religions.What isn't mentioned really in the book: Life cycle rituals beyond death and marriage, there's also birth, the welcoming of a child into a community; Menarche/puberty rituals; a ritual for becoming 18 or 21 or both that doesn't necessarily include getting insanely drunk; even a divorce ritual or a ritual to celebrate a return to work after an illness. The focus of his commentary is on Buddhism, Christianity and Judiasm and there's an implied absolute universality in ritual experience that isn't true from my experience of Christianity. While the framework of the religions are the same the experiences are different (as I discovered when I was talking to a US Catholic). His research also missed a building dialogue among some thinking pagans about the seasons of the year and the formulised feastdays that need to be changed to better reflect local variations and experiences. That mining local culture rather than slavishly adopting another set of customs and practices, not that some won't adopt other practices that suit them.It got a lot of extra marks for making me think but I don't think he's thinking much outside personal experience. It's also a pity that he isn't being more general in his addressing of people, this book needs to be debated by Theists as well as Atheists. I will probably add more to this review as I digest what he was saying.more
I read the book in the dutch translation. The first chapter promised that this book would tell me how to use the good parts of religions. But it turns out to be a book from a religion fanatic. Everything the religions do is good and everything that atheists do is wrong. Mr. de Botton is like an american television pastor who wants to convert atheists into believers, preferably into jews. His arguments are very poor and his examples are not to the point. It was really difficult to read the whole book. My advice: if you are interested in religion you better read the bible than this book!more
For me, Alain de Botton’s highly visible career as a public intellectual represents a personal journey as well. He took the path I wish I had pursued, as he did, much earlier in life. Therefore, here, I will not only review his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), but also chart the significance of this journey. Alain and I are intellectuals of the same generation, similar formation—in philosophy and literature—and with similar cultural ideals. Alain de Botton is one of the most vocal and prominent defenders of “a philosophy of everyday life”. He upholds the view--and shows by example, in each of his best-selling works--that philosophy and literature are not just for scholars or the intellectual elite. They are for everyone interested in taking some time off their busy schedules to enjoy the canonical works of Western philosophy and literature. If they read Alain de Botton’s books, they will be persuaded that—far from being dated or having a merely historical interest--these canonical works are still relevant to their daily lives. The ideal of engaging with philosophy and literature—let’s say, the wisdom of the ages--may seem perfect for an academic setting but, in my personal experience, I have found that for the most part it is not.Although there are some reputable scholars in the U.S. who write about important human issues in a way that is relevant to the general public and easy to understand without being simplistic—I’m thinking of Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Arthur Danto, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Victor Brombert and a handful of others—for the most part, scholarly writing tends to be too specialized to interest the general public. Furthermore, during the mid to late 1990’s, when I was going to graduate school, the fields of Comparative Literature, English, French and other languages were dominated by exceedingly specialized, arcane theories—loosely called “poststructuralist” or “postmodernist”--that rested upon questionable premises and widened the gap between the general public and scholarly writing in the arts and humanities. For a persuasive debunking of those theories, I’d recommend Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1997.Of course, there were and still are countless scholars in the Arts and Humanities—the vast majority perhaps--who write clearly about their areas of specialization and make important contributions to their fields. However, in most cases, their target audience is not, as it is for Alain de Botton, a general audience but rather a more restricted group of specialists. In my estimation, the specialized nature of scholarly writing combined with the predominance of arcane, trendy theories risked dooming literary studies to public irrelevance during the 1990’s.In this academic context, it took a lot of courage and a certain leap of faith for Alain de Botton to leave the academia (when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University) in order to become a public intellectual promoting philosophy and literature. While this goal would have been quite common for European intellectuals during the 1930’s and 40’s, when--to offer just one example out of many--the Existentialist movement had such a vast impact upon culture, this notion has become nearly obsolete nowadays. As difficult as it is to become a public intellectual in an academic setting—due to the two main reasons I mentioned earlier--it’s even more difficult to achieve this status outside the academia. Today the general public has been turned off by scholarship and, generally speaking, has little interest and time for intellectual pursuits.In an interview, Alain de Botton describes his choice to leave the academia in order to become a public intellectual as seizing the best opportunity: “In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.” To turn this expression around, what De Botton has offered the world is a genuine love of knowledge; a sense of the practical applications of canonical works and a clear; elegant explanations of some of the best-known Western novelists and philosophers. His efforts have been consistently rewarded with resounding success. His first book, Essays In Love (1993) became an instant bestseller. The Romantic Movement (1994), Kiss and Tell (1995) and--my personal favorite--How Proust Can Change your Life (1997) quickly followed suit, becoming equally popular with the public. Alain de Botton’s success is well earned, not only because of the quality and accessibility of his books, but also because he works hard to maintain his public status and connection to readers. He travels around the world for book launches and talks; connects with fans on Facebook and other public forums; gives lectures at TED conferences and even runs his own production company, called Seneca Productions that makes documentaries about his works. For him, being a public intellectual—let alone being a writer--is more than a full-time job. It’s a life passion.Despite its provocative title, his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), offers neither a polemical defense of religion for nonbelievers nor, conversely, a defense of atheism for believers. Rather, it’s the strongest and most compelling defense for humanist values I have read since Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity (1997). De Botton compellingly illustrates that religious principles and allegories should play an important role in modern secular society. His main thesis is that “we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: 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.” (Religion for Atheists, 12)In a way, De Botton expresses the secular contemporary version of “Pascal’s wager”. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal has famously stated in Pensées (1669) that since the existence of God can’t be proved or disproved, a rational person should bet that God exists and live “as though he had faith.” Then, logically speaking, if God exists he has everything to gain and if he doesn’t he has nothing to lose. Taking this kind of argument a step further, De Botton’s Religion for Atheists argues that even if we bet that God doesn’t exist, we should still adhere to some religious principles as if he did.What do we have to gain from “De Botton’s wager”, so to speak? First of all, religious principles and rituals—such as mass and other means of congregation—give us a sense of community. Without this, we risk becoming isolated, self-absorbed and alienated individuals. Religion also teaches us about the value of kindness and being other-regarding, which is as necessary for a sense of community as it is for modern marriages and family life. Religious figures and prophets, De Botton further pursues, offer us role models that are worth emulating. This is especially important in a media-driven culture that encourages us to admire athletes and actors, many of whom have questionable conduct and values. World religions also emphasize the role of education: not as a practical steppingstone to a pragmatic job, but as a way of growing emotionally and intellectually as individuals.Religion also teaches us a sense of modesty and reminds us of our limitations. Nothing brings this point home better than the problem of theodicy, or the question of why the suffering of innocents exists in a world governed by an omniscient and omnipotent divinity. The answer given by Christianity in The Book of Job, by Blaise Pascal, Simone Weil and even by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov comes down to the following thesis encapsulated by De Botton: “Fragile, limited creatures that [we] are, how can [we] possibly understand the ways of God?” (Religion for Atheists, 198) There are some things beyond human comprehension but our limitations should not be an excuse for hubris or for believing that we’re above morality.If I place De Botton’s important new book in the longstanding tradition of Western humanism, it’s because it underscores the importance of human ethical and social values that find their best expression through the invention of religion. Although postmodern critics, such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, have described themselves as “anti-humanists,” asserting that humanism posits overarching principles that lead to exclusion and hierarchy, Religion for Atheists demonstrates clearly and thoroughly why that’s not so. On the contrary, De Botton persuades us, we cannot exist harmoniously or happily as a secular society without respect for the religious principles and wisdom passed through the ages. Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalonmore
Changed my harsh opinion about religion (dir. "The three musketeers") completely. Thank you, Alain.more
same old de Botton, always looking for "consolations", formerly in philosophy (de Botton isn't very good at philosophy) and now in religion. The question is surely why anyone would need religion in the first place. Human beings, as social beings, buy into religion not like the distracted tourists in airport departure lounges who buy de Botton's books because they fancy something to read on the flight. There is an entire history of religion that explains why people might find "consolation" in it, usually involving justification for terror and exploitation, sometimes for social liberation. But this pick n mix consumer approach from de Botton is unconvincing mainly because it's what "non-believers" have been doing since the earliest religions, - ie hedging their bets by attending church just in case the village priest is right and God exists - which throws into doubt de Botton's simplistic distinction between belief and atheism. more
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