Book Review – Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

This review was originally published on Goodreads.

It would be easy to pick apart Alain de Botton’s manifesto on the usefulness of religion, and indeed I’m left wishing that he had not left quite so many obvious holes through which grenades can easily be lobbed. In his generally insightful analysis of the benefits a secular society (or more specifically, secular citizens) can achieve by appropriating the mechanisms and approaches of religion, he often writes ‘down’ to his fellow nonbelievers, as though we were not just occasionally but always bereft of structure, guidance and certainty about how to live our lives well. He limits his examples to the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, ignoring the juggernaut that is Islamic culture as well as the less globally prominent, but no less socially significant practices of the Hindu, Shinto and animist religions. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge (maybe, as a lifelong atheist, he isn’t acutely aware of the fact) that religions and the religious often fail to live up to their own declared ideals and can be just as petty, grandiose, directionless and poorly grounded as the rest of us. And he virtually ignores some of the aspects of human existence that religion does deal with particularly well, such as loss and grief, in favour of a focus on more nebulous characteristics like tenderness and pessimism.

Nevertheless this is a good book, and you should read it.

Why? Because for all its omissions of fact and lapses in rigour, de Botton is onto something here. He takes as his starting point a shared presumption that no religions are true – this is a book for atheists and agnostics, not believers – but argues that religion, as a human artefact still in use after tens of thousands of years, must be getting some things right.

He examines this premise by looking at how religion structures and lends weight to our sense of community, our approach to education, the transformative powers of art and architecture, and the institutionalisation of core precepts and plans. Religion, by being about more than just the individual, confers a sense of perspective and (paradoxically perhaps) longevity. Ritual and repetition are useful constructs to help us both contemplate and internalise the lessons we learn as we go through life, and to become better people along the way.

The central thrust of his argument is that the structures of religion help us transmute knowledge into wisdom, collected facts into considered purpose, individual effort into shared endeavour, and beauty into transcendence – and if we reject those structures, simply because they are religious in origin, we lose a significant portion of our own cultural and social heritage. So he posits an appropriation of religion’s structured, ritualised approach to the business of living into the secular sphere where, devoid of superstition, it can still meet our many and varied emotional and organisational needs.

You may argue that we don’t need this structure, that your sense of self and community and purpose are just fine, thank you, and that the last two centuries’ shift towards more individualistic, morally relative, non-judgemental societies is just as it should be. I for one have no wish to turn back the clock; I cherish my individual freedom and right to self-determination, society’s growing intolerance of intolerance, and the breadth of thought, daring and ambition that is the birthright of the 21st century. But it is also true that in our headlong rush into the future we are in danger of dismissing the totality of social structures and cultural mores of the past as being of no value or relevance. This would be a mistake. De Botton deserves credit for trying to start a rational conversation about how to take the best bits with us.

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  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it. In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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