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Religion For Atheists

Alain de Botton

LST Review

Alain de Botton is a believer - but not in God.

Religion for Atheists begins and ends with the idea that secular society needs its own institutions that give space and support to our inner life. We need systems, structures, rituals, directed reading, fellowship, visual encouragement and regular discipline of the kind the great religions of the world have offered for thousands of years. What we don't need is the ideology and dogma that comes with a belief in the Divine.

His argument is attractive because when we look around we see we are in crisis on all sides. Active religion of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish kinds has been occupied by fundamentalism in its crusading or evangelical forms. The war-mongering, bigotry and misogyny of the clamouring faiths will not forward humankind on Earth. Their mandate from the Divine should be rejected as the evil absurdity that it is.

But as the current global crisis has made so clear, humans without God are neither better behaved nor more capable of acting creatively and responsibly than humans who use God to justify their actions.Our present predicament is moral as well as financial. Rational thinking and scientific progress neither prevented the crisis nor provided answers to address it. Legislation will deal with some of the symptoms but none of the causes. We are financially bankrupt because we are morally bankrupt.

What now?

Alain de Botton doesn't want to be a prophet crying in the wilderness. For him the great triumph of organised religion is exactly that: organisation. A calendar of feasts and observances to help us to remember our good fortune and our obligations to others. Sacred texts to which we return for instruction and contemplation. Beautiful buildings - whether churches or temples - where we can meet without fear, and where the lonely or the stranger can be welcomed too. Rituals that help us to cross the various thresholds of our lives, whether of birth and death, marriage or puberty. Structures visible and invisible to support us when we suffer and struggle, as well as when we need to celebrate and rejoice.

The Jewish Day of Atonement, for instance, when everyone must examine their conduct and make reparation where they have offended, would be an excellent new Bank Holiday - and let the banks fund it.

How about an electronic version of the Wailing Wall? That way we could all see how difficult life is and feel less alone, though this might turn into a Facebook for depressives.We should reorganise our museums, says de Botton, so that they provide contemplation and encouragement, not just information and a passive gazing experience. Art is purposeful and pushes towards the good in us. I like it that he is unafraid to talk about art as having the capacity to make us better - that is, both healed up and more able. Art and architecture, for so many years in bold and active service to religious belief, can be equally powerful in a world without God but with values. We should build for beauty and freedom of spirit, argues de Botton. And we should build new, secular but spiritual places where we can renew ourselves, alone and together.

He proposes, to begin with, a tower in the City of London as a place for contemplation, as well as a series of 'Agape' restaurants, where long tables of the monastic refectory kind would allow people to eat and talk together. Their talk would not be aimless chatter, but guided, with little books of instruction.This, he claims, would help us to appreciate each other as more than our jobs and our incomes. And it would be the opposite of speed dating - there would be no agenda and no pressure - simply a way of spending time together enjoyably. We don't know how to build communities any more, but religions have always built them around eating together: Passover, the Buddhist tea ceremony, the Last Supper, Christmas.

This is a nice idea, and to make it accessible to all the food industry might be persuaded to subsidise it. There isn't much in de Botton's thesis about who is going to pay for a new spiritual world of billboards that say FORGIVENESS instead of CRISPS. One of his charts graphically displays the amount spent in the UK every year on Pringles - £67 million - and the amount spent on poetry books: £6.5 million.

Religions have always taken money from the rich - lots of it - as well as tithes from believers, so that access and instruction can be free of charge. Alain de Botton's School of Life charges £12.50 to hear a Sunday sermon. Day courses cost about £125. This is understandable but problematic. How can the poor afford a new and necessary spiritual dimension? The riots last year were evidence enough that the poor and the dispossessed need a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose as desperately as do the academic and the lawyer.

For anyone fed up of the Dawkins Delusion that rationality and science are the answer to the human condition, Religion for Atheists is a serious and optimistic set of practical ideas that could improve and alter the way we live. It will be easy to mock this attempt at a different kind of spiritual blueprint: it is undemocratic, uncosted and myopically middle class, but it is energetic and on the side of the angels. At least Alain de Botton is trying to do something about the frightening mess that we are in.

More books on Religion

NY Times Review

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, religion lost influence, but the religious impulse lingered on. Some people sought salvation in the secular religions of politics - in Communism, fascism and various utopian experiments. Others saw artists, musicians and writers as Holy Men, who could provide transcendence and meaning, revealing timeless truths on how to live.

In 1913, the innovations of the Armory Show in New York and Diaghilev's production of The Rite of Spring had a seismic impact because audiences believed the shape of the culture determined the shape of their souls. In 1922, George Gordon, the Merton professor of literature at Oxford University, could write,'“England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it.'

These days politics and culture have more modest aims. As the writer and freelance philosopher Alain de Botton argues in Religion for Atheists,cultural and intellectual institutions are no longer about the salvation of souls:

'The methodologies which universities today employ in disseminating culture are fundamentally at odds with the intense, neo-religious ambitions once harbored by lapsed or skeptical Christians. . . . While universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, they remain wholly uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom.'

De Botton looks around and sees a secular society denuded of high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance. Centuries ago, religions gave people advice on how to live with others, how to tolerate other people's faults, how to assuage anger, endure pain and deal with the petty corruptions of a commercial world. These days, he argues, teachers, artists and philosophers no longer even try to offer such practical wisdom.

'We are fatefully in love with ambiguity, uncritical of the Modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience,' he writes.

Museums were once temples for the contemplation of the profound. Today, he says, they offer pallid cultural smorgasbords: 'While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls.' Visitors 'appear to want to be transformed by art,' de Botton observes, 'but the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike. They resemble the disappointed participants in a failed seance.'

It wasn't a loss of faith that brought us to this sorry pass, de Botton argues; it was a loss in understanding about how to transmit wisdom. The religious authorities had a low but realistic view of human nature. We are fragile, sinful and vulnerable - unable to create moral universes on our own. We therefore need self-confident institutions that will unabashedly transmit God's guidance and love.

Today's secular institutions, by contrast, have an absurdly high and unrealistic view of human nature. We are each charged with the task of coming up with our own philosophy and moral laws. We are supposed to have the ability, on our own, to remember the key things we learn and to put these ideas into practice. The key thing is that we are given enough freedom and autonomy to complete the task.

De Botton is not calling for a religious revival. He finds it impossible to take faith in God seriously. He assumes that none of his educated readers could possibly believe in spooky ghosts in the sky.

Instead, he is calling on secular institutions to adopt religion's pedagogy, to mimic the rituals, habits and teaching techniques that churches, mosques and synagogues perfected over centuries. For example, religious people were smart enough to combine spirituality and eating, aware that while dining in a group, people tend to be in a convivial, welcoming mood. De Botton believes that secular people should create communal restaurants that mimic the Passover Seder. Atheists would sit at big, communal tables. They would find guidebooks in front of them, reminiscent of the Jewish Haggadah or the Catholic missal. The rituals of the meal would direct diners to speak with one another, asking questions of their neighbors like 'Whom can you not forgive?' or 'What do you fear?'

Among de Botton's proposals, I particularly like the idea of a museum organized by theme instead of by historical epoch. He suggests there could be a Gallery of Compassion, a Gallery of Fear and so on. And colleges should definitely teach courses on such practical issues as how to pick a marriage partner, bringing together the resources of literature, psychology and neuroscience on such questions.

However, many of his ideas seem silly. I'm a little skeptical that college lectures should be like Southern Baptist church services, with students shouting out responses after each sentence of a philosophy lecture. It seems highly unlikely that people will behave much better if there are 'Forgiveness' billboards plastered all over town. I'm not sure an atheist society could really pull off a quarterly 'Day of Atonement' when everybody pauses to confess sins to no one in particular.

De Botton's book is provocative when it comes to diagnosing the current cultural ills. But it makes atheism seem kind of boring, a spiritual handicap, the opiate of the shallow masses.

Let's say you were a young person looking to have a rich inner life. You could pull off the shelves the story of a believer's spiritual education, like C. S. Lewis's 'Surprised by Joy' or Augustine's 'Confessions.' In these books you'd find complex adventure stories, describing people whose early lives were riven by turmoil, pride and self-love. You'd find a dramatic education process involving intricate, unexpected stages of resistance, surrender, loathing God, loving God, leaps of faith and the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny.

These writers don't coolly shop for personal growth experiences like someone at the spiritual mall. They find themselves enmeshed in paradoxes of a richness unimaginable before they became entangled in them - that understanding comes after love, that one achieves fullness by surrendering self, that as you approach wisdom you are swept by a sensation that you have been suppressing all along, and all you need do is release. Augustine's great biographer Peter Brown writes, 'The healing process by which love and knowledge are reintegrated is made possible by an inseparable connection between growing self-determination and dependence on a source of life that always escapes ­self-determination.'

Lewis describes the joy of religious contact, but discovers he can't achieve joy by seeking it: 'I smuggled in the assumption that what I wanted was a 'thrill,' a state of my own mind. And there lies the deadly error. Only when your whole attention and desire are fixed on something else - whether a distant mountain, or the past, or the gods of Asgard - does the 'thrill' arise. It is a byproduct. Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.'

There's something at stake in these accounts, a person's whole destiny and soul. The process de Botton is recommending is more like going on one of those self-improving vacations. If all his advice were faithfully followed, we'd be a collection of autonomous individuals seeking a string of vaguely uplifting experiences that might perhaps leave a sediment of some sort of spiritual improvement.

Many of us would rather live frustrated in the company of the believers than fulfilled in this flatland of the atheists. The atheists know what they don't believe in, but they don't seem to know what they don't feel. This is a gap that has existed for centuries, and de Botton doesn't fill it.


'It's useful that there are gods, and that's why we believe in them,' chirped Ovid in a line he wrote at almost exactly the time when the most useful of them all was being born in Bethlehem. In Christian communities, that line has often gone down badly, but Ovid was quite in keeping with the views of his contemporaries. Religion existed, he argued, so that oaths meant something, and we wouldn't kill each other.

Alain de Botton picks up the story: 'So vital were these rules to our survival that for thousands of years we did not dare to admit that we ourselves had formulated them, lest we expose them to critical scrutiny and irreverent handling.'

De Botton starts from the premise that God is dead, but also that some of the rules and practices His presence helped enshrine would do us a lot of good. As the author laments lyrically: 'We don't go on pilgrimages. We can't build temples ... Strangers rarely sing together.'

He argues that religion offers boundaries that today's corporations, universities and buildings lack. After all, a religion isn't just a way of creating venerable mysteries and projecting them into another realm (although de Botton likes that aspect of worship - it provides a sense of awe and perspective that astronomy can still provide, and assures us that, in the scheme of the universe, we are tiny).

No: religion is also a source of practical advice on how to live our lives. The author picks some cherries from the Talmud, including guidelines on how often busy men should make love to their wives, in accordance with how much they're around: 'For men of independent means, every day. For labourers, twice a week. For donkey drivers, once a week. For camel drivers, once in 30 days.'

De Botton wishes that education were more like this. At least, he would rather that we concentrated more on fewer books (and in this account, books really are a load of crap, because they're far less likely to change your life than an institution is).

He points out that most diligent humanities graduates have covered more literature than Dante or St Augustine could have known, and asks, has it made them any wiser?

The problem, according to de Botton, is that a lecturer who wrote his PhD thesis on 'Patterns in Meta-narrative in Euripides' Ion' is likely to promote learning for its own sake. A Roman Catholic priest, on the other hand, knows exactly what texts will appear at what stage in the year, and why.

This is to make Religion for Atheists sound not at all hip. Fair enough: it isn't always supposed to be. De Botton writes with the elegance and wit so admirable in someone who is committed to making his insights relevant to a wide readership. But he keeps using the word 'libertarian', and not in a nice way.

Libertarian parents, for example, are the sorts of people who will always adore their impulsive babies, but who quickly resort to charts on the fridge that record each assault on the family pet.

Still, if the author's charm has a purpose (and everything needs a purpose, after all), it's to make the disciplines of faith seem lovely and life-enhancing, rather than fearful and humbling. He does this with a steady stream of proposals.

For example, universities should have relationships departments. Art galleries should present paintings not according to period or style, but according to the passions they are likely to evoke.

Big corporations should apply their wisdom to aspects of life that go beyond their products. A chain of secular confessionals, called 'talkingcure', should spring up in high streets.

Those prescriptive 'should's' come with optimistic 'would''s to make the effort seem worthwhile: 'Among the advertisements for jeans and computers high above the streets of our cities, we should place electronic versions of Wailing Walls that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes, and thereby give us all a clearer sense of what is involved in being alive.'

Similarly: 'We need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be too undisciplined to make time for.'

So, we should bow to some greater discipline than our own will; that way we would feel the good things we want to feel. There's a paradox here, a flaw, even, that makes this book more affable than austere: what's especially good about religion is that we can make it really suit us. I wonder if that's what St Paul had in mind.

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