Alain de Botton – Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

On Tuesday The Age ran a story on the Freemasons in which the grand master of Victoria commented on the value of the society, ‘Freemasonry gives you that structure but without religious connotation. That’s why the world needs Freemasonry now more than ever…I’m afraid I have seen a slow degeneration in the community outside Freemasonry’.

One of the great challenges for Western societies is adapting to a post-Christian culture. The girders have been removed, the buttresses have been dismantled – how shall it remain standing? For Alain de Botton, the answer lies in replicating religion for secularists.

De Botton grew up in a militantly atheistic home, but he differs greatly from the likes of Richard Dawkins in many respects, perhaps most fundamentally in his recognition of the human condition. He says,
Religions have wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed creatures: incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always slowly dying’ (p. 189)
Despite the progress of science and technology, these fundamental aspects of human experience have not changed and de Botton sees a culture increasingly ill-equipped to deal with them. If the problems that drove human societies to create gods and religions remain, then the social functions they performed are no less crucial now that god is dead and supernaturalism is so patently irrational. Religion for Atheists is an extended homily on how the secular West might correct itself by learning from religion (specifically Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism).

De Botton suggests that since we are
…relational, we should learn from how religions do community
…moral, we should learn from how religions teach virtue
…both sensory and cognitive, we should learn from the way religions use images, spaces and rituals to recondition our minds
…vulnerable, we should learn how religions give comfort
…fallible, we should follow religions in setting up institutions that will provide the constant reminders and supports we need.

He describes a range of possible initiatives for the secular religious, including university faculties for relationships and self-knowledge, billboards advertising forgiveness, art galleries dedicated to the themes of suffering or compassion, ‘agape restaurants’ where strangers welcome one another and share their regrets. I must say I took exception to his advocacy of an annual ‘moment of release’ in which chaos and debauchery take pride of place as people ‘set off into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners’ (p. 66). But, on the whole, his suggestions are valuable endeavours. Of course, what they aim to achieve is a much lower standard than what religion aspires to. De Botton defends the doctrine of Original Sin as an idea with ‘ongoing charm and utility’. He explains,
Enlightenment thinkers believed that they were doing us a favour by declaring man to be originally and naturally good. However, being repeatedly informed of our native decency can cause us to become paralysed with remorse over our failure to measure up to impossible standards of integrity (pp. 82-3)
He recognises that people need help in order to live virtuous lives and that ultimately no-one is perfect. Christianity agrees, but is not satisfied with imperfection. All the religion is the world is not enough to end our failure (Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:21) and, ultimately, we need a power beyond ourselves (Romans 8:6, Galatians 5:22-3, Ephesians 1:18-21).

De Botton focuses on what he admires in religion and is commendable in the restraint he shows. Evidently he does not believe tirades against religion’s missteps are productive, but nor does he feel the need to criticise his fellow atheists who have taken this course. Thus, what he presents is something consistently positive, though didactic to the extreme.

Another great contrast to The God Delusion and God is Not Great is the physical beauty of Religion for Atheists. Whereas the former are rather ugly, Religion for Atheists is elegant. Not only are its cover and typeface gracefully laid out, but every third page or so has an image relating to what is being discussed, such as a photographs of worshippers, medieval artwork or suggested design for a secular temple. Combined with his artful prose, it is an easy book to enjoy reading.

One thing I have taken away from this book is a consciousness of the role that art and architecture have played in Christianity and a desire to learn from this. As de Botton observes, Protestants have preferred simplicity and utility in their buildings (secular as well as religious). While the Protestant’s reaction against the iconography of the Catholic Church was important in correcting false views of Mary and the saints, the neglect of aesthetics has been unfortunate. The descriptions of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles set the precedent for thinking hard about how the space in which the church meets might be designed to foster worship of God.

Whilst I found the book most interesting, as a believer, I also found it incredibly patronising. De Botton considers believers to be living in a sort of happy ignorance. They receive the benefits of religion by sacrificing their reason. I do believe that Christianity offers a profound understanding of the human condition, and this is reflected in church practices. But I don’t follow Jesus because I find church traditions helpful or consoling, but because I believe he is the Truth. And this certainly does not mean a denial of reason. In defending intellectual and scientific endeavour, John Calvin wrote,
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.2.15)
Although it may not always be this way in practice, a belief that the creator God is the source of truth leads naturally away from superstition and towards reason and discovery. The difference between atheists and believers is not a matter of rationality. Here is the difference: everything de Botton has to offer is about making the road to the grave more comfortable; Christianity is about a road that does not lead to the grave.