Friday, March 30, 2012

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

A step toward a more productive atheism
Despite the title of this blog I do occasionally read a current book, this one having been released in the U.S. within the past month. I have never read any of Alain de Botton’s previous work, but I recently had the good fortune to hear him speak on the topic of Religion for Atheists, and afterwards I immediately purchased the book. 

I generally don’t enjoy reading books on atheism because usually the authors are telling me something I already know (evolution is real, the Bible contains inaccuracies, the Church has done bad things, etc.). De Botton, thankfully, has moved beyond this tedious bible bashing and has written a book that is actually useful. While the trend in philosophical thought in the past century has been towards a more analytical concentration on theoretical minutiae, far removed from the concerns of the general public, de Botton is one contemporary thinker who strives to find practical ways people can use philosophy to enrich their everyday lives. In this book, he applies this perspective to religion, asking what lessons can non-believers learn from the religious world that would actually be beneficial to their personal well-being and to society as a whole.

He acknowledges the given fact that religions are based on false mythologies, yet proposes that all religions were invented by humans and are thus humanistic in that they were created to address fundamental human needs. De Botton uses terms like “spiritual” and “soul,” a poor choice of terminology in an argument addressed toward atheists, but essentially he’s talking about basic psychological and social needs like community, mutual compassion, support through times of hardship and stress, and a healthy perspective towards the insignificance of one’s own problems. Even though atheists don’t believe in a deity, they still share these needs and must find a way to address them. The secular means of accomplishing this is through culture—philosophy, literature, art, and so on—yet no secular school of thought has ever attained the level of popularity, influence, or fervor enjoyed by the world’s major religions. De Botton investigates why this is so.

For simplicity’s sake, he only focuses on three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Zen Buddhism. He is concerned less with the messages these religions have to offer than with the media by which their messages are disseminated, promoted, and propagandized. He cites examples of the ways religions use ritual, art, and architecture to reinforce their teachings, and examines their educational methods and institutional organization. De Botton goes on to propose specific steps he feels would be necessary for an atheistic or humanistic ideology to compete with or supersede the domineering influence of religion on society. This would involve revamping the world’s universities, art museums, and public architecture, and would also require some institutional organization on the part of an atheist movement. Organization is a frightening word to most atheists, as they envision de Botton pushing a new dogma to replace the old, which nevertheless would also repress free thought. In reality, however, he’s merely proposing a situation similar to that which existed in ancient Greece, in which philosophical schools like the Stoics, Cynics, or Epicureans encouraged community among like-minded individuals and mutual assistance in personal growth, as opposed to the state of atheism today in which everyone is holed up in their own apartments reading books, the contents of which will soon be forgotten. At no point does de Botton ever tell anyone what to believe. Instead he encourages individuals to construct their own belief systems by selecting relevant lessons from amongst the various schools of secular and religious thought.

De Botton’s writing is lively, entertaining, and crystal clear throughout. No extensive prior knowledge of philosophy or religion is required to enjoy this book or learn from it. Much of what de Botton has to say is common sense, but like a lot of great philosophy, if you concentrate enough common sense between the covers of one book, sometimes it approaches genius.
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