Jess, akahas written this review of Alain de Botton’s recent book. Her recent post on BS was well received! Please join the conversation.
Atheism: throw it some bones.
Alain de Botton has written an eloquent and never-more-timely book (of which there is also a less eloquent TED talk) on the virtues of religion from an atheist’s perspective, and how secular society can benefit from its reappopriation to support its humanistic ends, much like how the religious pick and choose from their holy book to support their own (zing).
It comes at the perfect time in the evolution of my atheism, where my focus has shifted from changing unchangeable minds to a sort of compromise; accepting religion for what it is – obviously untrue in any god-given sense, but still a valuable tool in bringing us together in pursuit of Good.
Thus the new idea that atheists need to defend is not “is religion true?”, but “is it useful?”, and how can these elements provide relief to all of us suffering under the ‘ol human condition, without the need to give up our rationality?
De Botton argues that in an effort to stay away from anything which seems remotely religious, atheists have “allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind.” And it’s true. Religion doesn’t own rituals, prayer, shrines, tradition, wisdom, just like it doesn’t own morality. It just doesn’t recognize it by any other name. Atheists have the luxury of taking the duty out of rituals, the delusion out of prayer, the nonsense out of tradition, the datedness out of wisdom, to use them for what they’re good for in the world we live in now. So why don’t we? Probably because we lack the organizational structure, or even the desire to organize.
He envisions a world where schools have Department of Relationships where we learn and discuss how to be a good friend, and busy public spaces have electronic billboards connected to live feeds of telescopes to give us some much needed cosmic scope. There are restaurants where patrons sit at a communal table, stranger-to-stranger, where food is ordered and consumed together and where “diners are encouraged to bypass the small talk into a more sincere revelation of themselves.” “Our conversations would free us from some of our more distorted fantasies about each other’s lives by revealing the extent to which, behind our well-developed facades, most of us are going a little out of our minds.” In this world we would hold onto certain traditions that soothe our soul, Like the Day of Atonement, a day to express regret to the ones we’ve hurt that year. Because for that one, we do need a little nudge, and religion knows this.
Religion gets a lot right, even if it does fudge the details. The encouragement toward moral improvement is admirable. Atheists just don’t agree that teaching someone they are born from sin should be part of this encouragement, nor believe it should be motivated by reward and punishment. Religion also exalts people for their virtues, not their physical beauty or amount of screen time, so that’s good. Religion reminds people we are emotionally fraught children deep down, afraid of meaninglessness and death, and in need of guidance and support. This one is debatable among humanists, but I agree for the most part, for most of us.
What religion lacks in sense-making, it makes up for in structure and knowledge of human psychological needs. It recognizes that repetition is needed to absorb an idea, that humans are more sensorial creatures than cognitive and so books alone won’t do to influence a way of living. It understands the power, the hold, of the institution. “The question we face now is how to ally the very many good ideas which currently slumber in the recesses of intellectual life with those organizational tools, many of them religious in origin, which stand the best chance of giving them due impact in the world.”
Conversely, what secular society lacks in structure, it makes up for in intention. It does good not as a means to an end, but as an end itself. It provides for our mental health needs, when sought, without judgment or imposing sin. It asks questions while being open to answers. But it only passively caters to the needs of the soul. “We are by no means lacking in materials which we might call into service to replace the holy texts, we are simply treating it in the wrong way. We are unwilling to consider secular culture religiously enough.”
My only criticism is that the book is pretty unbalanced. He makes no mention at all of the prevalence and growth of the humanist movement. Rather, he focuses entirely on the virtues of religion and the failings of secular society to provide for mental well-being. It’s as if he’s pandering just a little to the religious, who will unfortunately not be reading this book; probably because hijacking religion for its usefulness which to the religious is a function of it’s truthfulness is heathen level: expert!
What do you think? Is atheism made “better” by certain elements of religion, or should all aspects of religion be sloughed off as no more than archaic coping mechanisms in order to make way for a more authentic way of being and dealing?