Adam Higgitt'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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Feb 09, 2012

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Many people say they believe in some sort of higher being or essence but reject organised religion. Alain de Botton flips this on its head, arguing that religious rituals are important in helping us to be live better lives but insisting that God is a fiction.

de Botton's basic idea is one I personally find attractive. The triumph of secularism certainly appears to have shorn us of a variety of ways to reflect on our places in the universe and connect more meaningfully with others. His example of marriage is a good one: when a couple wed their friends and family are there, investing in their relationship. Once the ceremony is done, the couple are left to their own devices, with little of what social workers would call "support networks", much less other formal occasions during which to reflect and nourish the bonds. As he notes repeatedly, secular liberalism is good at telling us what we free to do, but falls short in offering guidance about what we ought to do.

But there are problems. Liberalism has shied away from this didacticism in part because the prescriptions of the church, among others, proved to be wrong in many cases, preventing us from doing what we should (such as show equal respect for gay people) and encouraging us to do things we shouldn't (like persecute non-believers). AdB does not adequately square how such traps are to be avoided if and when we return to such direct moral instruction as he suggests. At times, he also appears to offer conclusions on the secular life with little or no basis in evidence. He suggests, for example, that people forget the lessons of great works of secular art, while the date-bound ritual of the religious equivalent is sooner remembered because one is required to revisit it. He may be right, but where is the evidence? Where are the studies that show that people's memory of important movies, books or paintings fade more quickly than awareness of scripture?

The argument is also weakened by some of the ideas de Botton produces for how to reintroduce ritual and reflections into our lives. He rightly points out that a stripped out analysis of something like the Catholic Mass would look strange if it were not already layered with meaning, and to that extent his notion of an Agape restaurant in which many of the communal objectives of church services could be met is not as daft as some reviewers have suggested. But doing away with the study of history at university? That seems like both a wild and excessive step, simply because of his contention that the discipline merely teaches bald facts and shies away from attempting to connect the past with deeper meanings.

And ultimately, this is where his manifesto for secular religion falls down. For while the idea that we need ritual back in our lives to flourish as people is bold, it is ultimately too small an idea to change society in the ways he demands. de Botton's case is sound, but he needs to make it better, and be less demanding about what needs to change as a result.
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February 9, 2012 – Started Reading
February 9, 2012 – Shelved
February 9, 2012 – Finished Reading

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Ietrio You have problems. So you need help for those which you can't seem to solve. Yet the social services are not enough. You need "connect more meaningfully with others". A church.

This book was made for you, yet you give it only three stars out of five. Why? Only because ritual rimes with church which you feel is not cool?

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