‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton

312 p. 2012

I very much identify with de Botton’s motivation in writing this book about reclaiming the rituals and cultural practices of religion, without actually subscribing to its doctrines.  I have had a rather varied religious history.  After a childhood of Sunday School and youth group at my local Church of England, I still describe myself as culturally Anglican, with a deep love of the language of the old Book of Common Prayer, stained glass and hymns.  A dalliance over several years with born-again Christianity in my adolescence petered out into indifference in my mid-twenties.  My interest in Unitarianism was kindled in my fifties with none other than Alexander Downer (of all people) simpering that our treatment of East Timor over oil revenues could be balanced out by foreign aid “because that’s what aid is for”.  I heard a radio program about Unitarianism and its long history of trying to balance social justice with reason and commitment, and somehow or other that led to the Unitarian Church in East Melbourne, where I have attended somewhat sporadically ever since.  I very much enjoyed the more spiritually-attuned Unitarian services that I attended last year in Canada. They seemed  to capture my longing for community, time and space to think, social justice, music and reflection in a  ritualized setting.  So what do I believe in?  I believe in being human, in fallability, in good will, in humility at life’s trajectory, in community, in goodness, in beauty. God doesn’t really come into it.

Alain de Botton starts his book with the declaration that

To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.  …the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.  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 (p. 12)

And so, he identifies nine contributions that religion – any organized religion- can make to being human and considers them in their own right as human activities, rather than as expressions of spiritual belief. Community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions are each considered in turn, although there are overlaps between them – especially kindness and tenderness.  In particular he looks at the rituals and settings of religious activity, and suggests secular appropriations of them: museums organized around human traits, ritual sharing of food as a form of community, architecture designed to elicit awe, and art that evokes a sense of awareness of our own fleeting, fragile but precious lives.

His book is not an attack on Christianity, Judaism or Islam, and while it puts some suggestions on the table, it doesn’t really give any guidance on how they are to be achieved.  When he was going through his 9 contributions of religion, he could easily have included “ritually mark life’s transitions”.  It’s interesting that already people have developed their own secular ceremonies for namings, marriages and memorial services, without any need for a god to be involved in them, and without de Botton’s exhortations.

I know that critics have been derisive of his suggestions, but they very much appeal to me, and I think that already in my own way I’m seeking to find them already in my own life.  It’s paradoxical that he ends his discussion with the “visionary, eccentric and only intermittently sane sociologist” Auguste de Comte, who developed his own Religion of Humanity during the nineteenth century, because I feel that de Botton himself has made similar errors:

Comte’s greatest conceptual error was to label his scheme a religion.  Those who have given up on faith rarely feel indulgent towards this emotive word, nor are most adult, independent-minded atheists much attracted to the idea of joining a cult…Comte’s legacy, nevertheless, was his recognition that secular society requires its own institutions, ones that could take the place of religions by addressing human needs which fall outside the existing remits of politics, the family, culture and the workplace. p. 307

Sometimes I wonder if there’s not an element of self-indulgence and preciousness in a search for a non-religious religion.  I hope not.  I’m looking for something bigger than I am, but I want it grounded in being human, with all that entails, and embracing that humanity as something to be celebrated and cherished.

5 responses to “‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    You noted that many people have developed their own secular ceremonies for namings, marriages and memorial services, without any need for a god to be involved in them. And that is true. We have all been to weddings done by civil celebrants, baby namings without baptism and funerals not organised by the church.

    But many countries don’t allow civil ceremonies, or don’t recognise them if they occurred in other countries. Even in countries without a national church, it is still almost impossible for same-sexed marriages or legal adoptions by a single parent family to go ahead.

    Separation of church and state has not meant, in practice, that citizens can ritually mark all of life’s transitions without the benefit of church.

    • Agreed, although I was interested by a comment made by a civil celebrant the other night on television. He was talking about conducting a marriage for same-sex couples, and he said that he could make the service as Christian and religious as it could possibly be, but that the one part he couldn’t do was the legal section.

  2. I am probably being more honest than is good for me, but when you mentioned that you followed a religion, I was very surprised and a bit disappointed. I felt the need to look up the Unitarian Church and I did. My verdict? Ah, ok, that’s alright then.

    • LOL. I’m glad I didn’t disappoint! There’s probably a good reason that people advise you not to disclose your voting habits or your religion. When you learn that someone is a Scientologist, or into astral flying, or votes for a political party that is diametrically opposed to everything you believe in, you do wonder how that affects their world view on everything.

  3. I enjoy de Botton’s writings, and am looking forward to reading this sometime soonish. I guess I view religion the way he does, so I’m interested to hear his thoughts, but I also like the broader picture that he paints and the artistic, historical and literate references that he makes.

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