Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

by Alain de Botton

Hardcover, 2012




New York : Pantheon Books, 2012.


What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton's inspiring book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false--but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world. Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it--because the world's religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, de Botton (a non-believer himself) proposes that we look to religion for insights into how to, among other concerns, build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

"…Religion for Atheists might be said to be our default state. We even have a name for it: we call it the Church of England. De Botton’s inspiring book manages to condemn this compromise while offering a glimpse of a more enlightened path."
2 more
"One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn't be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised."
De Standaard, Uitgeverij Atlas

User reviews

LibraryThing member bunwat
This one lost me over excessive use of the first person plural. I really liked the idea, of exploring what religions are useful for, what social, and emotional and spiritual purposes they serve and how those might be retained even if you're an unbeliever who can't bring herself to sign on to the spaghetti monster in the sky mythos. Cool interesting yes please I'd like very much to talk and think more about that!!

I even heard some interviews with him that sounded interesting so yay, I was looking forward to it.

But then I get all these mini essays that sort of glancingly touch on a topic here or there without actually getting to grips with any of them. And he says he's just batting about some ideas, so okay fair enough I guess, but then that's really not a book, is it? Its more like a blog or a column or an essay series eh? I'd like a book to add up to a bit more.

Mostly though I just became unendurably annoyed at being lectured about what "we" think, and what "we" feel, and hey Kimosabe, maybe you think that its comforting to know that you are a sinner so its okay if you mess up, or maybe you yearn for a father figure to lay down the law and tell you what to do, and maybe you find art ultimately unsatisfying or whatever else it is you feel. But I guess I'm not you because I don't. And every time you told me "we" feel thus and so, when "I" did not, I found myself more and more distanced, until I was distanced right out of any desire to participate further.

Which is a pity because I thought the topic idea was splendiferous.

So in the end I was left with, great idea, execution fell utterly flat for me.
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LibraryThing member ClaudiaMoscovici
For me, Alain de Botton’s highly visible career as a public intellectual represents a personal journey as well. He took the path I wish I had pursued, as he did, much earlier in life. Therefore, here, I will not only review his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), but also chart the significance of this journey. Alain and I are intellectuals of the same generation, similar formation—in philosophy and literature—and with similar cultural ideals. Alain de Botton is one of the most vocal and prominent defenders of “a philosophy of everyday life”. He upholds the view--and shows by example, in each of his best-selling works--that philosophy and literature are not just for scholars or the intellectual elite. They are for everyone interested in taking some time off their busy schedules to enjoy the canonical works of Western philosophy and literature. If they read Alain de Botton’s books, they will be persuaded that—far from being dated or having a merely historical interest--these canonical works are still relevant to their daily lives. The ideal of engaging with philosophy and literature—let’s say, the wisdom of the ages--may seem perfect for an academic setting but, in my personal experience, I have found that for the most part it is not.

Although there are some reputable scholars in the U.S. who write about important human issues in a way that is relevant to the general public and easy to understand without being simplistic—I’m thinking of Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Arthur Danto, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Victor Brombert and a handful of others—for the most part, scholarly writing tends to be too specialized to interest the general public. Furthermore, during the mid to late 1990’s, when I was going to graduate school, the fields of Comparative Literature, English, French and other languages were dominated by exceedingly specialized, arcane theories—loosely called “poststructuralist” or “postmodernist”--that rested upon questionable premises and widened the gap between the general public and scholarly writing in the arts and humanities. For a persuasive debunking of those theories, I’d recommend Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1997.

Of course, there were and still are countless scholars in the Arts and Humanities—the vast majority perhaps--who write clearly about their areas of specialization and make important contributions to their fields. However, in most cases, their target audience is not, as it is for Alain de Botton, a general audience but rather a more restricted group of specialists. In my estimation, the specialized nature of scholarly writing combined with the predominance of arcane, trendy theories risked dooming literary studies to public irrelevance during the 1990’s.

In this academic context, it took a lot of courage and a certain leap of faith for Alain de Botton to leave the academia (when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University) in order to become a public intellectual promoting philosophy and literature. While this goal would have been quite common for European intellectuals during the 1930’s and 40’s, when--to offer just one example out of many--the Existentialist movement had such a vast impact upon culture, this notion has become nearly obsolete nowadays. As difficult as it is to become a public intellectual in an academic setting—due to the two main reasons I mentioned earlier--it’s even more difficult to achieve this status outside the academia. Today the general public has been turned off by scholarship and, generally speaking, has little interest and time for intellectual pursuits.

In an interview, Alain de Botton describes his choice to leave the academia in order to become a public intellectual as seizing the best opportunity: “In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.” To turn this expression around, what De Botton has offered the world is a genuine love of knowledge; a sense of the practical applications of canonical works and a clear; elegant explanations of some of the best-known Western novelists and philosophers. His efforts have been consistently rewarded with resounding success. His first book, Essays In Love (1993) became an instant bestseller. The Romantic Movement (1994), Kiss and Tell (1995) and--my personal favorite--How Proust Can Change your Life (1997) quickly followed suit, becoming equally popular with the public. Alain de Botton’s success is well earned, not only because of the quality and accessibility of his books, but also because he works hard to maintain his public status and connection to readers. He travels around the world for book launches and talks; connects with fans on Facebook and other public forums; gives lectures at TED conferences and even runs his own production company, called Seneca Productions that makes documentaries about his works. For him, being a public intellectual—let alone being a writer--is more than a full-time job. It’s a life passion.

Despite its provocative title, his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), offers neither a polemical defense of religion for nonbelievers nor, conversely, a defense of atheism for believers. Rather, it’s the strongest and most compelling defense for humanist values I have read since Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity (1997). De Botton compellingly illustrates that religious principles and allegories should play an important role in modern secular society. His main thesis is that “we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, 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 loved ones and to our decay and demise.” (Religion for Atheists, 12)

In a way, De Botton expresses the secular contemporary version of “Pascal’s wager”. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal has famously stated in Pensées (1669) that since the existence of God can’t be proved or disproved, a rational person should bet that God exists and live “as though he had faith.” Then, logically speaking, if God exists he has everything to gain and if he doesn’t he has nothing to lose. Taking this kind of argument a step further, De Botton’s Religion for Atheists argues that even if we bet that God doesn’t exist, we should still adhere to some religious principles as if he did.

What do we have to gain from “De Botton’s wager”, so to speak? First of all, religious principles and rituals—such as mass and other means of congregation—give us a sense of community. Without this, we risk becoming isolated, self-absorbed and alienated individuals. Religion also teaches us about the value of kindness and being other-regarding, which is as necessary for a sense of community as it is for modern marriages and family life. Religious figures and prophets, De Botton further pursues, offer us role models that are worth emulating. This is especially important in a media-driven culture that encourages us to admire athletes and actors, many of whom have questionable conduct and values. World religions also emphasize the role of education: not as a practical steppingstone to a pragmatic job, but as a way of growing emotionally and intellectually as individuals.

Religion also teaches us a sense of modesty and reminds us of our limitations. Nothing brings this point home better than the problem of theodicy, or the question of why the suffering of innocents exists in a world governed by an omniscient and omnipotent divinity. The answer given by Christianity in The Book of Job, by Blaise Pascal, Simone Weil and even by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov comes down to the following thesis encapsulated by De Botton: “Fragile, limited creatures that [we] are, how can [we] possibly understand the ways of God?” (Religion for Atheists, 198) There are some things beyond human comprehension but our limitations should not be an excuse for hubris or for believing that we’re above morality.

If I place De Botton’s important new book in the longstanding tradition of Western humanism, it’s because it underscores the importance of human ethical and social values that find their best expression through the invention of religion. Although postmodern critics, such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, have described themselves as “anti-humanists,” asserting that humanism posits overarching principles that lead to exclusion and hierarchy, Religion for Atheists demonstrates clearly and thoroughly why that’s not so. On the contrary, De Botton persuades us, we cannot exist harmoniously or happily as a secular society without respect for the religious principles and wisdom passed through the ages.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon
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LibraryThing member JorgeCarvajal
Food for thought but not much else. The main problem of the book is its absurdity. An atheist will have no clear use of this book in spite of its title because while it explores the benefits of religion it does so on society at large and its proposals are ludicrous and surreal. It does nothing on a personal level other than wishful thinking. It brings up some theoretical benefits of religion and then tells you the way for an atheist to obtain them is to live in a different world—useless. Its scope is narrow and its wordiness wide. If anything can be salvaged from this book is its listing of religious benefits, albeit with little or no proof and certainly not comprehensive, so that we can figure out a way to incorporate them into our secular lives, ignoring the book’s ludicrous suggestions. I have to stop at page 100 just before the IV chapter because I can’t take it anymore, the book rambles more about how “I hate this society” and anti-libertarianism that it talks about “religion and how it can be useful for atheists” which I naively thought it would be about.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
An erudite atheist, de Botton makes a good case for religion. Not for the belief in god or the supernatural, but the basic fact that humans invented religion and carried it down through the ages that it must serve some good purpose. In this book he proposes adapting some of the best elements of religion to secular purposes. In chapters on subjects such as community, kindness, perspective, art, architecture, education, and institutions he identifies the best of religion and make proposals for how these things may be adapted. For example, he proposes agape restaurants where people dine and converse with strangers and universities where people read books to learn from their emotional content instead of literary analysis. At times the ideas are silly, but I really like de Botton's approach and open mind. As a religious person myself, I find that extreme atheists (really, anti-theist bigots) are one side of the same coin of religious fundamentalist. It's good to have ideas that move beyond the tired arguments of the extremes and work toward the betterment of humanity.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
I found this thought provoking. Now while I find the assertion by some Atheists that a logical conclusion of their (dis)belief will be that everyone will embrace the same disbelief as misguided, I also see that many people remain with their religion unthinkingly because of some of the things listed in this book. Community, ritual, purpose, hope. However, just like there isn't one religion I don't think that any one answer will work for everyone.

This book is a dialogue that needs to happen. People need to examine what is in their religion for them and decide in better ways to make it work for them. I can also see a role for leaders within any community group to help with situations, call them what you will, but if someone has to take time out from their lives to visit the sick, bury the dead, console the living etc., they deserve recompense for the disruption in their lives. But they also need oversight and accountability to prevent some of the excesses and ills of existing religions.

What isn't mentioned really in the book: Life cycle rituals beyond death and marriage, there's also birth, the welcoming of a child into a community; Menarche/puberty rituals; a ritual for becoming 18 or 21 or both that doesn't necessarily include getting insanely drunk; even a divorce ritual or a ritual to celebrate a return to work after an illness.

The focus of his commentary is on Buddhism, Christianity and Judiasm and there's an implied absolute universality in ritual experience that isn't true from my experience of Christianity. While the framework of the religions are the same the experiences are different (as I discovered when I was talking to a US Catholic). His research also missed a building dialogue among some thinking pagans about the seasons of the year and the formulised feastdays that need to be changed to better reflect local variations and experiences. That mining local culture rather than slavishly adopting another set of customs and practices, not that some won't adopt other practices that suit them.

It got a lot of extra marks for making me think but I don't think he's thinking much outside personal experience. It's also a pity that he isn't being more general in his addressing of people, this book needs to be debated by Theists as well as Atheists.

I will probably add more to this review as I digest what he was saying.
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LibraryThing member Warriapendibookclub
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Robin saw an interview on TV with the author and thought this book would be interesting and different. She found that it was very interesting but was disappointed that there was no mention of Islam. Some parts were easy to read and others not so easy.
Others and Robin: Read it all. He wrote mainly about three religions and could have delved more. Had to read some of it twice. Liked a lot of his ideas, pictures were good to divide it up.
Lots of good ideas.
I started to read it and thought “that’s what I think!” We have all this freedom but don’t know what to do with it. We no longer have the moral code to live well together.
Read it all. His arguments were good and intriguing. A compelling book.
Not a "must finish it" book but easy to read. He has a lot of interesting things to say.
Not easy to read, rather repetitive but he made some good points.
Enjoyed it. It made me think. A lot of it was not new. The book was well structured but a bit verbose.
Missing out Islam didn't matter as he pointed out that all religions had the same basic structures. Some of his ideas were funny.
Creative and good ideas. Liked the pictures, they fitted in well.
Accessible discourse, liked that it was objective and well balanced. We sent our kids to Church schools to get these guidelines.
Comments sent by two who couldn't be here:
I must admit that I haven't read enough of the book to rate it - what I have read I found worthy and interesting but rather hard work - perhaps I haven't been in the right frame of mind, I'll try again later.
It was a great idea but far too long winded. The first section about Jewish traditions was excruciatingly tedious. I skimmed through a lot of the rest. I love a book with illustrations but these failed to illustrate and were not even rewarding to look at. I think they were there for further padding.

Score Av. 8.4
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LibraryThing member Pieter_Goldhoorn
I read the book in the dutch translation. The first chapter promised that this book would tell me how to use the good parts of religions. But it turns out to be a book from a religion fanatic. Everything the religions do is good and everything that atheists do is wrong. Mr. de Botton is like an american television pastor who wants to convert atheists into believers, preferably into jews. His arguments are very poor and his examples are not to the point. It was really difficult to read the whole book. My advice: if you are interested in religion you better read the bible than this book!… (more)
LibraryThing member teunduynstee
Religion for Atheists tries to show to atheists how many of the standard practices of religions could be useful to non-believers once stripped from the belief in a supernatural daddy in the sky. As a raised Roman Catholic and convinced atheist, I have always had a fascination for religions (I actually have a bible next to my bed, but note the non capital b). But when I first heard of this book, the summary presented of the ideas didn't really inspire me to actually read the book. The ideas I remember from the reviews where mostly about "secular temples" and how atheists could benefit from certain rituals around their central tenets. It all sounded rather superficial to me. Still after getting it recommended again and again, I spent some time on reading it. A great investment, I must admit.

The chapters of the book all focus on a different aspect of what religions (try to) bring to their followers and that secular society seems to have trouble providing. Think: Community, Kindness, Education (in how to live your life, not in molecular structures or agricultural techniques In medieval Portugal). The author tries to come up with some very concrete proposals for how we cold implement the centuries of experience from the religions of the world into our lives. Of course, these concrete proposals are what made the reviews, because they can easily be explained in a paragraph. However, I found the less concrete insights far more interesting and even inspiring. Especially the chapters on Kindness (why do we in liberal society make only the binary distinction between legal and illegal, and did we drop concepts of virtue and lesser sins, like helpfulness and jealousy?), Tenderness (on how we, deep inside, do not always want to be responsible adults and therefore need to be comforted and patronised every now and then) and Perspective (mostly as an antidote to entitlement) struck a chord with me. Others (Art, Architecture, Institutions) couldn't quite convince me or where even boring. It could of course be the case that some practices of religions are useful to us while others are only useful to the religions themselves and to the people in charge in those institutions. For example the stress in most religions on not questioning authority (be it priests or the origins of the holy booklet) are not great inventions that we should try to bolt onto our atheist world view. They where great inventions for maintaining a status quo, benificial to only the leaders of the status quo.

De Botton seems to have some good points of view and I am glad that I took the time to read this book, but he seems to have fallen in love with the idea "if religions do it, it must be good for the relious". A slightly more critical view there would be appropriate.
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LibraryThing member f_r_e
Changed my harsh opinion about religion (dir. "The three musketeers") completely. Thank you, Alain.
LibraryThing member bke
A thought provoking look at the non-supernatural aspects of religions, and how they can be of use to the non-religious. Usually Atheists believe it is a choice between having to accept some magical, supernatural, irrational doctrines, or doing away with a number of consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas. Alain de Botton suggests a third choice: STEAL from religion. After all, religion has been stealing from others for centuries, it is time to return the compliment.
His thesis is that he world's religions have, over the centuries, developed insights into how to build a sense of community, make lasting relationships, overcome envy and feelings of inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world. de Botton contends that non-believers can have all this but without the supernatural baggage. He suggests ways to have the best of both worlds.

"When sceptics and atheists began their assaults on religion in the late eighteenth century, they did so primarily through the medium of books. ...
Although these sceptics proved to be caustically entertaining critics of the faiths, they failed to appreciate the fundamental difference between themselves and their enemies: the latter were not relying primarily on the publication of _books_ to achieve their impact. They were employing _instiutions_, marshaling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, building, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments and calendars."
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LibraryThing member adamclaxton
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton tries to move along the age old debate between believers and agnostics regarding relevance and truth, by suggesting we need to learn or ‘cherry pick’ those ideas, rituals and institutions that can assist each and every one of us live our lives with greater fulfilment in this modern age.

The overriding premise of the book is one that I am attracted too but sadly the author’s argument seems to fall a little flat in the end. Unfortunately I cannot agree with or even see value in several of his many resolutions to life’s ills

As an example he proposes an “agape” restaurant where people sit, eat and converse (and a bit more once a year!) with strangers who are totally outside their social circle. I’m afraid human nature being what it is would instantly turn this idea into nothing more than novelty value… and definitely something that wouldn’t last much beyond the next economic downturn. Another suggestion is to take the focus of our tertiary institutions from that of solely providing a technical education to include far greater levels of emotional and reflective studies… I’m sure that would go down a treat with many undergraduates hankering to get their careers underway!

I think with a little learning, openness and contemplation we can all see the beauty the worlds many religions offer humanity … I’m just not too sure the author’s proposals are in any way practicable. I give it a solid three stars for the argument and as ever the author’s fluid writing style.
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LibraryThing member ablueidol
Insightful review of religious practice that could be adapted to non religious life. In a fact moving away from debates on God to the social and cultural benefits of religion so exposing the sterile nature of much contemporary life. Indirectly, it explores Marx's notion of religion being the opiate of the people but what this means in positive terms. What it lacks is a link to critiques being made of the notions of religious life and of God that would embrace many of the arguments made here… (more)
LibraryThing member edwin79
Even if we no longer believe in the supernatural, secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics can benefit from the moral, social, aesthetic, and therapeutic examples of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism.
This book will probably infuriate the new atheists. But if you are open-minded enough to know that science is not the sole source of wisdom, this thought provoking book is for you.… (more)
LibraryThing member RottenArsenal
I wasn't really sure what to expect from this. I somewhat expected a snarky book that was really more about entertainment than anything else.
What it is, however, was a very interesting presentation that I think most people would find something to take away.
Botton is very reasonable and fair. He really shows no prejudice towards any belief system and does no finger pointing or denouncements. His goal is simple: to show Atheists (and truly, in this sense, he is talking about someone who doesn't believe in a particular God) that there are aspects to religion that useful for everybody, not just believers.
He pulls examples related to concepts such as Community, Education, and Art & Architecture (just to name a few) and explains, without promoting belief in a deity, how aspects of religion can be applied in our daily lives.
Here's an example: Art is often religious in subject matter, but in display or discussion (typically in the far more secular art world), the subject is pushed to the back and the artist/time period/style is what the painting becomes "about". And this is not just religious art; this is typically how we "enjoy" art in museums and books. It's "Impressionism" or "Italian" or "Van Gogh." And that is fine from a cataloging standpoint, but it reduces the essence of the painting down to a thing and not an emotion or idea, which is generally the impetus for creating the work in the first place.
Botton would rather see art in the secular world presented more as the Church would. It's less about who painted it when and more about what is it about. In church, art is collected together and typically organized in a way to put subject themes together: Madonna and Child, the Passion, Stations of the Cross, etc. It isn't as important who made it, but rather, what does it represent. The subject, which is the point of the art, is what matters. And so, Botton advocates museums that group art by subject. He goes as far as to say group them by emotion, but I'm unsure as to how well that would work due to the subjective nature of art.
It's an interesting read. I am fairly certain than anybody who reads this, regardless of mindset, will find things they agree with, disagree with, and most importantly, make you look at certain things from a different viewpoint.
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LibraryThing member flydodofly
Another wonderful book by my favourite philosopher.
LibraryThing member adrianburke
Started reading as my downstairs book. I kind of like what he does and don't. Don't because is it more than a sophisticated cut and paste of the ideas of others? On balance probably puts enough spin to like. Certainly makes you think a bit about your life and that critical thing can't be bad.
LibraryThing member greeniezona
I have put off writing this review for quite some time as I've been resisting outing the thoughts I have in my head regarding religion. I know, I was pretty candid when reviewing The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and very outspoken when reviewing Butler's Parables. But something about how I felt about this book just seemed much more personal.

The premise of this book is simple (if emotionally loaded). Atheists, when rejecting religion, tend to reject all the trappings and buildings and holidays and ceremonies as well. But de Botton urges us to take another look. Very few of these things have a direct relationship to the miraculous supernatural that atheists turn their noses up at. And those ceremonies have evolved over hundreds, maybe thousands of years of human history, to appeal to parts of our psyche, to make us feel less alone, to encourage community, humility, giving us ways to acknowledge our shortcomings... Why should we give all those things up? And how can we recreate them without appealing to gods to do the heavy lifting?

As always, I enjoy de Botton's writing style, thought it seems like there is a section in every book that makes me grind my teeth. In this book it was a section on the useful applications of the doctrine of original sin. But overall, I am very sympathetic to his position. I want shrines to generosity, altars of loneliness. I want the experience of singing hymns together without having to sing theology that I don't believe in. But then, even de Botton admires the function of congregations to create community between people from different walks of life. What if we could somehow transform the nature of those congregations so that they could unite people of different faiths as well? So that Christians, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, etc., could come together, learn more about each other, and be united by their common humanity?

Yes, this is Nikki Giovanni's vision from "Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea," and I am well aware of the theological objections to "cafeteria spirituality." At this moment, though, after reading this book, the idea makes me happy.
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LibraryThing member evenlake
The fundamental idea of this book is that, as we have moved away from organized religion towards a more rational society, we have failed to address the reasons people are drawn to religion in the first place. And that we need address this deficit.

I know the author gets a lot of criticism for over-simplifying some complex ideas, but I disagree that this is what he is doing in this book. First he describes how religion can address spiritual needs, but that addressing these needs don’t necessarily require faith in an unseen deity. He then offers ways that secular society has ignored these needs. Finally, he offers ways that secular “temples” could be built that would address them.

Overall a really interesting book filled with compelling ideas, and a great conversation starter
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LibraryThing member SashaM
This book was a struggle. While I do think there are practices and philosophies we, as a secular society, can use that have been established by religions Alain de Botton's approach is really to create a religion without the God. As an atheist I really felt he missed the mark. I don't feel the need for really any of the methods or practices this book suggests. I guess I was expecting more of an idea of how we could adopt things like Christmas / Easter / etc into society and with these practices foster a sense of community without the religious nonsense that currently accompanies them. In much the same way as the early church took over the pagan midwinter and spring festivals that preceded them to begin with ( only now we would be free of the superstitions that created in our ancestors the need to light a bonfire on the darkest night of the year to bring the sun back).
I just got the general sense that de Botton just completely failed to understand atheism ( at least as I feel about it).
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LibraryThing member BenKline
Ok..... so.......................................... ...............ugh. I really don't know where to begin with this one. It's not so much the subject matter, or anything of that nature.... its the .... well..... the ideas behind it all, and the way de Botton lays it out.

Its basically Auguste Comte revisited, and its basically 'The School of Life' (Alain de Botton's YouTube channel) in book form (to various degrees). This, like much of de Botton, and School of Life, and other things he is attached to.... goes downhill the more and more you see/hear/read of it/him. "Oh, that sounds like a neat philosophical idea!" "oh, thats a neat premise!" "oh.... oh.... thats what you really meant? ....oh" "Oh..... you fully fleshed out that neat premise.... and oh god.... no..... no sir at all..."

Things like "Why You Need To Find Quiet Time" or "Spend More Time Outdoors" or "How to Relate to Your Spouse Better" sound like great ideas/themes, especially for 2, 3, or up to 6 minute YouTube videos.... but its about as in-depth as you imagine a 2-6 YouTube video to be.... not very at all, and its about as sugary coated New Age "everything will be OK in the end" "lets all hug" kind of thing you expect from the titles of it. And.... while this book isn't quite like that, its tone, and the presentation is very similar.

I must say, this took me longer than it should, for a 300 page book, where nearly every other page is a picture and its a smaller sized format hardcover book.... but, it just well did, and I can't quite express why (boredom perhaps? supercilious and just ... 'meh' themes? ....I dunno, all very nebulous reasons, but then again, the subject matter itself is nothing but nebulous).

Each chapter was pretty formulaic, present a theme or idea from religion (and by religion I primarily mean Christianity/Judaism, with occasional touches from Buddhism), and then talk about one small aspect of it which is bad, and then proceed to formulate a way to make it better with secularism. "Instead of a Shrine to Mother Theresa or The Virgin Mary lets have a Shrine to Tenderness or Passion or Caring or a Shrine to Shakespeare".

Sadly I was still OK with the general premise of the book, and still kind of 'eh, ok, on board' with the theme/ideas of it, until he fully went into how his whole motto, his whole MO, his whole... everything.... is basically Auguste Comte version 2.0, minus (possibly) the lunacy parts. And thats where it primarily/majorly/finally lost me, and sadly that's the last chapter instead of the first (which could have saved a lot of people a lot of time).
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LibraryThing member Scriptopus
It would be easy to pick apart Alain de Botton's manifesto on the usefulness of religion, and indeed I'm left wishing that he had not left quite so many obvious holes through which grenades can easily be lobbed. In his generally insightful analysis of the benefits a secular society (or more specifically, secular citizens) can achieve by appropriating the mechanisms and approaches of religion, he often writes 'down' to his fellow nonbelievers, as though we were not just occasionally but always bereft of structure, guidance and certainty about how to live our lives well. He limits his examples to the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, ignoring the juggernaut that is Islamic culture as well as the less globally prominent, but no less socially significant practices of the Hindu, Shinto and animist religions. He doesn't seem to acknowledge (maybe, as a lifelong atheist, he isn't acutely aware of the fact) that religions and the religious often fail to live up to their own declared ideals and can be just as petty, grandiose, directionless and poorly grounded as the rest of us. And he virtually ignores some of the aspects of human existence that religion does deal with particularly well, such as loss and grief, in favour of a focus on more nebulous characteristics like tenderness and pessimism.

Nevertheless this is a good book, and you should read it.

Why? Because for all its omissions of fact and lapses in rigour, de Botton is onto something here. He takes as his starting point a shared presumption that no religions are true - this is a book for atheists and agnostics, not believers - but argues that religion, as a human artefact still in use after tens of thousands of years, must be getting some things right.

He examines this premise by looking at how religion structures and lends weight to our sense of community, our approach to education, the transformative powers of art and architecture, and the institutionalisation of core precepts and plans. Religion, by being about more than just the individual, confers a sense of perspective and (paradoxically perhaps) longevity. Ritual and repetition are useful constructs to help us both contemplate and internalise the lessons we learn as we go through life, and to become better people along the way.

The central thrust of his argument is that the structures of religion help us transmute knowledge into wisdom, collected facts into considered purpose, individual effort into shared endeavour, and beauty into transcendence - and if we reject those structures, simply because they are religious in origin, we lose a significant portion of our own cultural and social heritage. So he posits an appropriation of religion's structured, ritualised approach to the business of living into the secular sphere where, devoid of superstition, it can still meet our many and varied emotional and organisational needs.

You may argue that we don't need this structure, that your sense of self and community and purpose are just fine, thank you, and that the last two centuries' shift towards more individualistic, morally relative, non-judgemental societies is just as it should be. I for one have no wish to turn back the clock; I cherish my individual freedom and right to self-determination, society's growing intolerance of intolerance, and the breadth of thought, daring and ambition that is the birthright of the 21st century. But it is also true that in our headlong rush into the future we are in danger of dismissing the totality of social structures and cultural mores of the past as being of no value or relevance. This would be a mistake. De Botton deserves credit for trying to start a rational conversation about how to take the best bits with us.
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