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.
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.
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
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.
Regular readers know that I've been on a bit of a reading kick for contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, ever since hearing him impressively speak on a recent episode of the "On Being" podcast; and after first tackling his older book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I thought I'd now skip ahead and review one of his latest, the 2011 practical self-help book Religion for Atheists which had been the whole reason he was on the "On Being" podcast in the first place. (And in fact, de Botton has really put his money where his mouth is with this book, recently opening a literal "church for atheists" in a storefront space in central London called The School of Life; and it's technically that that he was on the podcast to promote.) The title basically describes the entire argument of the book -- that there are plenty of secular functions and roles that organized religion provides society, apart and away from its spiritual aspects, that atheists would be wise to adopt in their own lives for more happiness -- and while some of these roles are pretty easy to guess at (providing a sense of ritual in our lives, providing a communal space for like-minded individuals), there are others here that come as a pleasing surprise; for example, that religions provide an excuse for people to design moral codes of behavior that all who attend must adhere to (or in other words, think about how nice it'd be at your next dinner party to be able to declare your apartment a "hipster-douchebag-free zone" or to ban all talk about politics), or that religions provide a way to aesthetically celebrate the lessons in life that are most important for us. A thought-provoking book, but one always grounded in practical advice on how to actually implement these changes in real life, it comes strongly recommended to all my fellow atheists, and I can guarantee that some of its lessons will have a strong impact on the way that CCLaP runs its eventual physical headquarters here in Chicago.
Out of 10: 9.1
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I just got the general sense that de Botton just completely failed to understand atheism ( at least as I feel about it).
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."
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.