Religion For Atheists
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 24, 2012
Popular British philosophical essayist Alain de Botton grew up in a “committedly atheistic” family, but finds religion interesting and even valuable for what it can teach us.
“Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition,” says Alain de Botton, whose latest book, Religion for Atheists, is a somewhat contrived and ultimately unconvincing venture into thinking about religion.
But in one key respect at least it represents an advance on the string of recent books by neo-atheists including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michel Onfray and Christopher Hitchens: de Botton sees the question of whether any religion is true or not as “the most boring and unproductive question one can ask.”
An atheist himself, de Botton says that if we start out by assuming that “we of course made God up” then religions begin to be seen for what they really are: sophisticated systems for thinking about our deepest yearnings, and experiencing and being in this weird and wonderful and endlessly perplexing thing called Life.
Alain de Botton on 'Religion for Atheists'
Alain de Botton repeatedly associates religious yearning with childhood — above all with the very human and positive need to be nurtured. He appears to be strongly drawn to the aesthetic side of religion, and the idea that all that great religious art, music and architecture has a “teaching” function. “It exists to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls. It is a mechanism whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of,” he writes.
Alain de Botton is a cherry picker, and he says the challenge facing atheists is how to reverse the process of “religious colonisation”, taking back ideas and rituals that religious institutions lay claim to but don’t really own. But there’s a problem with this kind of cherry-picking that he never really come to grips with. Great religious art, music and architecture can, of course, be appreciated by non-believers, but the fact is they would not exist if it were not for the very real faith of the artists who produced them and the world for which they were originally produced. In other words, you can’t have the outward manifestations of faith without the thing itself.
In some ways this is also a very conservative and paternalistic book, with a strong anti-libertarian subtext. He refers to the Jewish Mishnah (he might equally have mentioned Islamic sharia law), the ancient body of directives about everything from sex and marriage to inheritance, food and hygiene, whose observance binds the “moral community” together. “There is wisdom is accepting that in most situations we are rather simple entities in want of the same kind of firm, basic guidance as is naturally offered to children and domestic animals,” he says.
Which strikes me as a very strange thing for a philosopher to say. Philosophy is about thinking our way through problems, but this view is about having all the thinking done for us.
Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Hamish Hamilton Penguin, 2012)