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Monday, April 23, 2012

RevGalBookPals: Religion for Atheists

Let’s be honest. I am not (and likely you’re not) the intended audience of Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton. Given that I am a religious (Protestant) woman, a book with very little mention of women, no use for religion, and particular disdain for Protestants should have very little appeal. And, to be truthful, I have read it now and it is neither bad nor good. Ironically, it’s kind of lukewarm.

De Botton makes it clear in his introduction that he will be irritating both the religious readers and his fellow atheists. His premise is fascinating, regardless of whether or not you believe it to be flawed, in that he poses that religions alleviate certain needs and concerns of humanity in a way that secular society has not:

[F}irst, 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 the loved ones and to our decay and demise. (12)

Arguably, secular society has not solved those problems because it cannot- having neither the capacity or desire to do so. De Botton posits that the capacity is within secularist society and that, by examining how religion has dealt with these issues, (through purposeful community life, calendar structure, education, and institutions) secular society can also bring solutions to bear on the inevitable struggles of human life.

Throughout the book, de Botton lists what he perceives to be the fundamental struggles of human life- all tributaries to the river called “How to live and how to die”. He points to how he perceives religion to have dealt with these issues. When he says “religion”, he means Roman Catholicism (historical and contemporary), Judaism (main forms), and Buddhism (various forms mentioned). It would seem de Botton understands Catholicism to have had the most profound effect on shaping public institutions and public life. Judaism, from his point of view, offers great guidance for private living and living as individual within a community. And, it would seem, his own experiences with Buddhism prevented him from omitting it from the book.

In one example, de Botton explains how Christianity (read: Roman Catholicism) has structured communities to help people deal with their bodily and psychic needs so that they can, in turn, help those around them. In churches, people do things that they would not typically do elsewhere: sing with strangers in a group, convene without regard to prior association, speak together, confess to deep troubles and painful behavior, absolve others, offer consolation and peace to non-relatives, and so on.

In essence, religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life. Religions teach us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober, but they also know that if they do not allow us to be or do otherwise every once in a while, they will break our spirit. In their most sophisticated moments, religions accept the debt that goodness, faith, and sweetness owe to their opposites. (63)

Part of my struggle in reading this book is that I have a religious linguistic framework in my head. When I read, “There could be temples to spring and temples to kindness, temples to serenity and temples to reflection, temples to forgiveness and temples to self-knowledge,” my thoughts are that de Botton is simply make those ideals into gods. That’s not atheism, it’s polytheism with the deity being the philosophical premises that de Botton holds dear.

De Botton does point out some of the real flaws in secular society. The free market is not set up to psychologically or emotionally prepare a person for dying or for death around them. The commodification of our bodies does not actually teach us how to live or live well. The constant barrage of information does more to separate us from our fellow humans and other animals than it does to bring us together. In a fear of seeming “religious”, the institutions that provide information, universities, museums, music programs, do not actually teach people how to live with that information, to use what is being learned, seen, heard, or observed toward better living and better dying.

While de Botton offers a structure for secular society to begin to convey these ideals, I am not entirely sure how it would be accomplished. The book is full of provocation (and occasionally disturbing) pictures and photo-shopped images of advertisements promoting forgiveness, art work that offers perspective on the length of human existence, and structures that draw one out of one’s self (and presumably out of one’s self-absorption).

Ultimately, the proposals fell flat. While the idea is lofty, de Botton will have difficulty selling this premise. That is precisely the problem in that secularism will buy anything, when the price is right. The mysteries of religious, from the perspective of non-believers, come at too high a cost. Yet, the vagaries of living and dying are cheapened when they are not taken seriously. De Botton has tried to provide currency for claiming and reclaiming those mysteries, but I am not sure anyone will buy his argument.

The worth of this book for a believer (a religious person) lies in what de Botton says religions do. Do you understand what you believe to offer daily, weekly, monthly, yearly guidance? Does your particular religiosity offer you guidance for the here and now or merely for getting by until the sweet by and by? Do the elements of your faith, sacraments, catechism, art, music, and literature, bring you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the mysteries of living and dying?

Inasmuch as de Botton (one atheist) believes that religions do these things for their adherents, we should ask ourselves what it is that we believe? Are we communicating what we believe or are we working toward believing that which we communicate? Perhaps we need a slim volume- a combination of Scriptures, church history, art history, and instruction- entitled, “Religion for Believers”.

I would recommend this book for reflections with a more advanced book group or Bible study or for the next time you and your best friend agree to read something together. This book needs discussion after reading. 

de Botton, Alain. Religion for Atheists. Pantheon, New York. 2012. 

This book was purchased for review. 


  1. Having been previously married to an atheist, I would say his perspective was similar, though based in his own experience with Christianity of the Protestant, conservative form rather than Roman Catholicism. He frequently affirmed the nature of my work as valuable because "people need community." Thanks for reading and reviewing the book.

  2. thank you, Julia, you've "started a lot of hares," here... a very helpful review... interesting, for a start, that his #1 human agony is "professional failure." H'm! Much to think about. Sounds as though it would be a nice, provocative, book to quote in preaching too.


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