Atheist Finds Religion: Can Non-Believers Embrace Parts of Religious Tradition?
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The following piece first appeared on PopMatters.com.
As with his previous books for the “educated reader” looking for a light but worthwhile introduction to philosophical and moral issues, Alain de Botton relies upon a mix of photos and illustrations with witty or profound captions to lighten the heavier lessons of his text. He glides over as much as he digs into. Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion indicates by its subtitle the utility to which he puts beliefs and rituals. Whether this fervent application of Photoshop and pious belief in the transformational potential of humanism will find many converts, given its erratic and at times superficial coverage of issues and ideas, remains as open-ended as its contents. These direct the seeker to secularize ancient stories and venerable practices in the therapeutic service of one’s own growth and that of the community, bereft of belief in a higher power.
Born in England to a family of Jewish ancestry but one lacking personal investment in its spiritual inheritance, de Botton respects the cultural legacy and virtuous examples inculcated by religion. He contrasts his gentler skepticism with the harsher diatribes of prominent neo-atheists. Instead of damning the damage done in the name of faith, de Botton urges a mature acceptance of the benefits religion has given people in the past. By applying ethical lessons in short but sprawling chapters organized around a righteous virtue or moral principle, he encourages skeptics and non-believers today to learn from centuries of religious experience in dealing with human limitations.
De Botton begins by listing the reasons humans invented religion: to live in communities while overcoming selfish and violent impulses; to cope with pain—caused by our failures, troubled relationships, and the death of loved ones—and to face “our own decay and demise”. This short study, the size of a prayerbook for a secular aspirant, serves as inspirational reading for those who may admire some elements of sacramental rituals, Zen tea ceremonies, or Torah readings, but who cannot believe in them as other than inventions of our ancestors to explain or interpret the mysteries around us.
The first chapter argues for reversing the societal “process of religious colonization” to claim its moral legacy and cultural richness while separating secular identity from religious rituals and beliefs, thus to enrich “our soul-related needs”. De Botton refuses to discard the lessons of religion along with its encouragements and prohibitions, for religion’s enduring impacts can teach us how to live better. By burning off the residue of an outmoded set of dogmas and doctrines, he seeks to distill the essence of what can nourish a non-believer.
Next chapter, bonding gains analysis. The comfort of the Catholic Mass, a Passover meal, Yom Kippur’s congregational confession, and the upending of the medieval Feast of Fools are all examined skillfully as communal rituals uniting and enriching us. The satire of the last example channels the playful nature underlying games and rules which humans create. People need to letting loose rather than restraining sillier impulses. De Botton proposes a standardized framework that allows tension to be released now and then. He imagines, as he inserts altered photographs throughout this volume, the opening of an Agape Restaurant able to satisfy the culinary and communal longings of its non-churchgoing clientele.
De Botton reminds us of how religions cement people together, whereas modernism tends to isolate them. Reflecting on the appeal of paternalism and guidance rather than a vain libertarianism elevating individual gain above all other priorities, de Botton remarks how reform can come from efforts which involve others. “Religions understand this: they know to sustain goodness, it helps to have an audience.” Chapter Three explores the continuing need for direction, if not from heaven, than from the angels of our better nature. While atheists lament the imposition of scriptural injunctions in public spaces, they overlook their own complicity in encouraging the relentless promotion of consumerism and consumption, in ways as damaging to modern sensibilities as the outmoded frames of traditional reverence which secular adherents disdain.