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<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

Religion For Atheists

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.

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.

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)

9 comments on this story
by Nigel

...."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".......

Absolute rot.
Many of the great religious artworks and artifacts were created solely to please the patron in order to reap the material benefits that the patrons - principally the church hierarchies, but also wealthy folk who paid for the works to be created in order to receive absolution from their multitudinous, and often heinous, sins, would bestow on them.
Pure commercialism, made necessary by the need to obtain food, shelter and clothing in a society tightly controlled by the iron fists of Princes - secular and religious.
The evils that religions have imposed on society over the millenia are incalculable and remain a major cause of community instability to this day.
Perfidious is too mild a word to describe them.

February 25, 2012 @ 4:11pm
by Jude

Go Nigel, all this pussyfooting around religion gives me the yips too. Nasty, evil and not even nice.

February 25, 2012 @ 7:12pm
by Carlos

Couldn't agree more.... with Nigel.
Well said.

February 26, 2012 @ 7:16pm
by Franky

Indeed. It's likely that many artists, musicians and architects who enjoyed the patronage of the Church were unwilling conscripts, like those who are still press-ganged into having imaginary friends to this day (by parents, peer pressure or because it's mandatory for acceptance or advancement).
Da Vinci, Michelangelo and many other `Christian' artists' works are littered with hidden anti-religious and anti-establishment symbols that were basically showing the finger at the time to the very faith they were commissioned to celebrate. And Da Vinci was left-handed, vegetarian and gay to boot!

February 26, 2012 @ 10:00pm
by Nathan

It is a sham the De Botton seems to have a very utilitarian, paternalistic attitude to the role of religion. Sure, it can often be used for subjugating individuals to authority (as are animals and children) - and this is indeed a criticism many atheists have of religion. But one commits the 'naturalistic fallacy' if one assumes that just because this CAN be the case, therefore it necessarily is ALWAYS, or should always be, the case.
From Aboriginal spirituality to Greek mythology to Christianity, different religions, mythologies and spiritualities are all unique revelations sought at answering man's intrinsic spiritual nature from their unique historical and cultural contexts. Religion, ideally, is heroic, just and beautiful and non-subscribers in a particular religion shouldn't be afraid to learn something from it.

February 26, 2012 @ 11:32pm
by bigstick1

I agree with Nigel.

February 27, 2012 @ 1:58pm
Show previous 6 comments
by Dan

Aboriginal spirituality doesn't say that I am going to burn for eternity if I don't follow its doctrine. It is a way of describing the world. It is allegory. That is not the same as organised religion.

February 27, 2012 @ 4:19pm
by Nick

This review surprised me given how much I enjoyed "A Week at the Airport" and "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".

But I guess what I liked about de Botton was the reading experience (he writes or is edited extremely well) rather than breaking down his arguments and analysing them - I suggest that religion is a far more contentious topic than those covered by the two books I mention above.

February 28, 2012 @ 11:14pm
by Rose

I'm amazed no one's mentioned the paternalistic authoritarian tone of de Botton's endorsement of our supposed need for a "moral community" of authoritarian traditionalist styles of religion that treat us like "children and domestic animals". Compared to this hazy intellectualism cum authoritarianism what is wrong with humane versions of religion like the more liberal younger churches (uniting church etc.) or silent (or else sometimes defrocked) fringes of catholicism that calls for major reform of the faith?

March 6, 2012 @ 11:31pm
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