Atheist Finds Religion: Can Non-Believers Embrace Parts of Religious Tradition?
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With their reliance on modest reason rather than pious elevation, secular intellectuals, de Botton observes of his earnest colleagues, usually lack the historical or cultural advantages afforded their religious counterparts. The unbelievers as “volatile individual practitioners run what are in effect cottage industries, while organized religions infiltrate our consciousness with all the might and sophistication available to institutional power”. De Botton contrasts the scholarly success of Thomas Aquinas in a popular career against the obscurity endured by Friedrich Nietzsche during his life in support of this argument. This appears, however, to skim over the neo-atheist appeal of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens among audiences. De Botton aims this volume at overcoming the weaknesses of this cabal, but he exaggerates the difficulty of secular proponents finding a ready audience and warm welcome in person and via many media.
While de Botton understates the role in the century and more since Nietzsche of tenure, talk shows, and an occasional book to spark controversy (at least for a few media-savvy competitors to de Botton—although his own accessible but erudite works have gained him far more acclaim than those of most philosophers these days), one notes how inspirational volumes often top American lists. Consider one of the past year’s most persistent number-one titles, a toddler’s testimony Heaven Is For Real “as told to” his father (an evangelical pastor in Nebraska), about the not-quite-four year old’s meeting—after an appendectomy gone awry—with Samson, John the Baptist, and a blue-eyed Christ. Nearby on the bestseller charts, self-help nostrums adapt conventional pieties as marketed for niche Christian, New Age, and/or business-oriented audiences.
Commodification has its benefits, as religions organized around easily recognizable symbols, icons, and rituals verify. The author encourages secular proponents to transmit their views more forcefully and cleverly, to compete by campaigns of wise and witty branding. He intersperses mock-ups of these throughout his volume. Despite de Botton’s earnestness and wit, these altered images may provoke mockery or parody rather than convey comfort or inspiration.
Its American dust jacket features a paper imitation of a leather bound bible. What Sartre called a “god-shaped hole” provides a clever depiction of the existentialist audience primed for its preaching. The title nestles inside the void opened up by the cut-out, and the burnished letters of Holy Writ, half-visible, half-excised, symbolize de Botton’s mission: to accept the possible limits of humanism without discarding the cost-benefit equations tallied up over thousands of years of religious practice.
He wraps up this brief handbook with a nod to his “only intermittently sane” ideological forebear, Auguste Comte, who in the early 19th century established a template for, and hoped for temples to, a Religion of Humanity. However, as de Botton admits, Comte’s rational replacements for religion failed to inspire but a few of his French heirs to separation of Church and State after revolution and the Enlightenment, a consequence this author may underestimate as a cautionary tale. Visitors to Notre-Dame vastly outnumber those to any shrine to Comte’s ambition. Granted, worshipers at such cathedrals usually are dwarfed by tourists, while parishes and shrines languish; de Botton’s European perspective neglects the megachurch phenomenon popular in the US and increasing in the Third World.
De Botton acknowledges the difficulty of constructing such a rational, but inspirational, effort, when religions have centuries if not millenniums of a headstart on human habits. Still, he reminds his readers at the close of this diligently illustrated, devotedly skeptical, but ultimately encouraging guide: “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” This curious, if cautiously phrased, conclusion sums up this message of this philosophical heir to Comte and centuries of dogged rationalists who seek the solace of a higher power: as a force for inspiration generated from our own ambitions, dreams, and longings.