Jeffrey Howard's Reviews > Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
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it was amazing
bookshelves: religion-general

Alain de Botton will make uncomfortable the most pious religionists and unyielding atheists in his endeavor to bring them into harmony with each other--they need one another. Just as religion needs to be redeemed from the religious, humanism must be salvaged from bombastic atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.

He admits that this book is not the "first attempt to reconcile an antipathy towards the supernatural side of religion with an admiration for certain of its ideas and practices; nor is it the first to be interested in a practical rather than a merely theoretical effect." He builds upon the tradition of Auguste Comte, who recognized as many of his contemporaries then and atheists today do not, that "a secular society devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, scientific discovery, popular entertainment and romantic love - a society lacking in any sources of ethical instruction, consolation, transcendent awe or solidarity - would fall prey to untenable social maladies."

He echoes William James' focus on fruits not roots, in pointing us toward the pragmatic nature of truth. He discourages us from getting hung up on abstractions or the tenuous claims about the supernatural. Alain de Botton finds kinship with the thought of Joseph Campbell who likewise invited us not throw the baby out with the baptismal water when it comes to the demonstrably false historical claims or unfalsifiable (or unprovable) notions of the supernatural. Alain de Botton cautions us that "religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone."

He writes beautifully, authoritatively, and accessibly. He could be considered a secular humanist, but labeling him as such would write off his ideas as common or dole. He gently provokes, empathizes, and inspires in the same sentence. "In a world beset by fundamentalists of both believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts...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."

In Religion for Atheists he "hopes to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true." Again, his thought runs in parallel with Joseph Campbell who preached that the historical or literal claims of religion are secondary, if not irrelevant, that the power of religious stories rest in their mythological power, their ability to help us live well, to find wisdom as we move forward on our inward journeys. He divides the book into 10 chapters ranging from topics of community, kindness, and education, to pessimism (perhaps his most provocative chapter), art, and architecture. Within each he references the wisdom religions have gifted humanity regarding each of these realms, how secular society has failed to replicate it as successfully as religion, and then offers his vision of their secular form.

For community he proposes agape restaurants. To kindle kindness he elaborates upon libertarianism's place in society, although he somehow misunderstands its inextricable and fortunate connection to capitalism. He skewers the current state of higher education: "Graduation speeches stereotypically identify liberal education with the acquisition of wisdom and self-knowledge, but these goals have little bearing on the day to day methods of departmental instruction and examination. To judge by what they do rather than what they airily declaim, universities are in the business of turning out a majority of tightly focuses professionals and a minority of culturally well-informed but ethically confuses arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives...We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission: to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live. And we have left the second of these two aims recklessly vague and unattended." And so on he goes through each aspect of society.

We must educate the soul.

He argues that culture can replace scripture, but our institutions and application of culture have a long way to go before they can see the success canon has had on the inner lives of believers.

His chapters on community and education stand out most in my mind. Hearing an atheist comfortably use the term soul, to talk about the higher ideals of humanity, to have an intellectual interest in the real life application of lived ideas is rare. Those ideas which do not contribute to our living well are irrelevant at best: "science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master."

His international project, The School of Life, is a real life extension of what he outlines in this book, his undertaking to replace traditional religion with a religion of humanity, where culture informs us how to live well, where we create rituals that can inspire us.

Some atheists leave behind the faith of their upbringing, embittered, or disinterested in religion. For those who have experienced a faith transition, longing for the richness of religious life without the supernatural or theistic underpinnings they can no longer believe, this book offers an encouraging road map for recapturing it. Alain de Botton will put off religionists and atheists alike, but in the language of kindness, he leaves us a vision for how we can regain paradise lost, by celebrating and, in parts, by embracing the wisdom that religions have gathered and preserved for thousands of years.
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Reading Progress

March 12, 2016 – Started Reading
March 12, 2016 – Shelved
March 12, 2016 – Shelved as: religion-general
March 12, 2016 –
page 70
March 14, 2016 –
page 166
March 16, 2016 – Finished Reading

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