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Religion For Atheists: A Book Review

Posted: 03/11/2012 7:40 pm

In this new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton attempts to plunge himself into the raging storm of religious and atheistic controversy. (If you are new to de Botton, he is the Gladwell of literature and philosophy with similar strengths and weaknesses.) However, de Botton, I believe, grossly overestimates his ability to stir controversy. He seems like too much of a nice, kind, delightful person to actually stir up anger on either side. I don't think people judge non-militant atheists with any sort of the unkindness some reserve for virulent atheists, so de Botton comes off as innocuous in his essential claim, but poetic in his religious descriptions. In fact, after I read de Botton's pleasant new offering, I found myself wanting to live a more religious life. De Botton, in this book, sets out to show how though many can't believe in any religious dogma, or any sense of a divine, we still ought to mimic many religious practices because of their pragmatic advantages. Again, not an original claim by any means, but one that de Botton in his usual style sets out eloquently, though in a reductive manner.

Not that I necessarily mind the co-opting of sources, but de Botton writes as if he lives in a vacuum in which he discovers, or espouses ideas that to him feel fresh, but to others, feel old, stale, almost childish. Off the top of my head, I can think of numerous books that make similar claims, two of which came out this year, both of which deserve more acclaim. First, philosopher A.C. Grayling published his humanist Bible The Good Book, which attempts to provide wisdom based only on secular sources. Then, in a considerably more academic and complex manner, the recently published The Joys of Secularism, a compilation of essays that deal exactly with this question. Or, from over 100 years ago, the short, but ton of bricks essay from Bertrand Russell, Free Man's Worship.

Even more vexing for its lack of mention, is the whole field of positive psychology, which works off the premise that we can live meaningful, purposeful, love-infused lives simply based off the scientific study. Their guidebook, Character Strengths and Virtues written by Peterson and Seligman, outline different traits and actions that lead to a healthier, happier, more meaningful life, which entails many religious-type rituals divested of the dogmatic content. The saddest lack of citation for de Botton is his failure to recognize one of the main sources of his ideas, the pragmatist philosopher and psychologist William James. James, throughout his work, but specifically in his seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience, espouses an acceptance of religious practices only if they produce fruits in this world. True, James is far from an atheist, but his system of analysis bears a striking resemblance to de Botton with considerably more nuance and subtlety that would aid de Botton in his venture. De Botton would greatly benefit from adding himself to a conversation instead of pretending the larger conversation doesn't exist.

Besides these general stylistic factors, the most gaping wound in this book lies in de Botton's hesitancy to move past a utopian, almost naive sense of his endeavor into actual philosophy. He never explores the basic assumption on which his whole book rests. Mainly, his assumption that because the mechanics used in a religious setting work, and have worked for thousands of years, they will work in a secular setting. Not that I disagree with him, per se, I think history will be the greatest proof and witness to this argument, but the arguments demands, well, an argument. I could easily envision the argument made that all of these mechanisms work in a religious setting not only because of the simple mechanics figured out by religious visionaries i.e. putting people in a social setting with rules creates a sense of cohesion, but because the shared belief binds and moves people to better action, thoughts, and feelings. Church, temple, and mosque experiences, bring us together not because of proximity, but because of the mutual belief in a higher being that loves us, that wants us to love our universal family.

In short, de Botton grossly underestimates the power of belief, and treats religious rituals as behavioral mechanisms that automatically create effects. Instead of exploring this question, de Botton plans out ways to transplant the mechanisms of religion into the realm of secularism, which often can sounds nice in the way the idealism of a teenager sounds nice, but most often sounds naive at best, and slightly totalitarian at worst. At one point, he makes the metaphor that we as parents use star charts to encourage and keep track of the moral development of kids, but we outgrow that, out of hubris, as we age, though, he believes, in this step we are misguided. We don't outgrow a need for the equivalent of adult star charts.

Yet, I shouldn't short shrift de Botton because he always finds a way to insert insights all his own, or in a manner all his own. While on an excursion to poke holes in our naive assumptions about the importance of a libertarian outlook, which amounts to an almost childish argument, de Botton does describes an irony of the straw-man libertarian viewpoint, especially in the realm of morals. de Botton writes, "The modern state...it intervenes when it is already far too late, after we have picked up the gun, stolen the money, lied to the children or pushed our spouse out of the window," which sounds like propaganda, but amidst this failed attempt to balance the needs of libertarianism with a more just society, de Botton throws out this aphoristic gem, "It (i.e. the modern state) does not study the debt that large crimes owe to subtle abuses." Or, his keen analysis of a prevalent superficial definition of the freedom we desire, "Real freedom does not mean being wholly left to one's own devices; it should be compatible with being harnessed and guided." This sounds wonderfully similar to Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Kook's explanation of the Torah as freedom, as free to achieve our potential. As is his wont, de Botton writes at his best when he confronts our abiding human frailty.

Furthermore, his descriptions of certain rituals, including communion, meditation, the Day of Atonement, and mourning rituals, evoke powerful nostalgia. He writes beautifully of foreign religious experiences; not a simple feat. In fact, I understand why his book evokes a desire for religious growth in me. He reads as a great pragmatist apologist for the relevance of religion. Some of de Botton's passages come off as some of the better descriptions of religions' wisdom I've read in a while. For example, his analysis of the greatness of Day of Atonement as a day in which we can transcend our base self that hinders us from forgiving, or asking for forgiveness elicits pride for me in my tradition. He explains that stemming from the fact that "Our vulnerability insults our self-conception; we are in pain and at the same time offended that we could so easily be so," leads a person to deny forgiveness. Which, he finds, is remedied by the commandment of a Day of Atonement, "All of this the Day of Atonement will help to correct. A period in which human error is proclaimed as a general truth makes it easier to confess to specific infractions...The Day of Atonement has the immense advantage of making the idea of saying sorry look like it came from somewhere else, the initiative of neither the perpetrator."

Now, despite these overall realizations, I can't help but wholeheartedly recommend de Botton's new book. It provokes thought, even if he is not original or ground breaking. His ability to eloquently argue his points elicits a desire in this reader to aspire to similar eloquence in my own thoughts. De Botton, if nothing else, demands clarity of our own thinking, even if our thinking mostly entails a disagreement with his fundamental arguments. For that reason, he remains a literary asset for those looking for introductions into fields of thought. Beyond his style, de Botton always writes and fights for easy values to agree with, even if you disagree with his methods i.e. the values of openness, tolerance, self-awareness, complexity, universal love, and a deep understanding of the human condition. Ultimately, what continuously separates de Botton apart is his genuine attempt to alleviate loneliness and sadness in a harsh world. If only all writers wrote with such unabashedly kind intentions.

 

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