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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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The Sad, Silly Idea of 'Religion for Atheists'

Posted: 03/13/2012 10:43 am

There are two kinds of atheists.

There are the fire-breathing, venom-filled religion haters, who pour out their contempt on religious believers and who delight in talking about the extremism that is to be found in the history of all the great religious traditions.

And then there are those who reject religious belief and dismiss the idea of religious truth but who acknowledge, a bit grudgingly perhaps, that much of what religion has done has value.

Alain de Botton is in the latter category. In his book, "Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion," de Botton recognizes the worthy purposes of religion. He doesn't believe himself, to be sure, and the premise of his book is that religious beliefs are nonsense. But he admits that religious institutions assist humankind to build community, overcome loneliness, cope with pain and engender morality.

Yet, instead of recommending religion to others, perhaps with reservations, de Botton proposes the creation of a secularized religion -- a "religion for atheists." This is hardly a new idea. Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill and innumerable others have tried this before in one way or another, but de Botton is not deterred by their failures. He offers a new system, taking elements from many religious traditions and reformulating them into a secular religion of his own.

What de Botton comes up with ranges from the mildly interesting to the quite ridiculous. He wants a secular version of Judaism's Day of Atonement so that we all might seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed. He wants museums to devote themselves to making us good, and he wants university lecturers to focus on instilling wisdom by adopting the style of Pentecostal preachers. And he wants a new kind of restaurant in which strangers would sit together and share their deepest feelings; they would be guided by a Book of Agape that would be modeled on the Passover haggadah and the early Christian ritual of love feasts and that would instruct those dining on what topics to discuss and for how long.

Some religious people that I know are offended or even angered by what de Botton has proposed. I am not. I prefer his limited admiration for religion to the shrill attacks of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. I also do not agree with those who claim that he is patronizing. This would only be true if he were saying that religion is important for the unwashed masses; but in fact, he makes it clear that he is as much in need of the love and support that religion provides as is anyone else. In general, when non-religious people attempt to create their own rituals and build their own altars in order to cope with their mortality and the fragility of life, I welcome this -- and I suspect that God does as well.

Nonetheless, I still find de Botton's approach, while well-intentioned, to be pathetic and sad. The point is not that some of the specifics are silly, which they are. (He wants to have a "Feast of Fools" -- an annual orgy that will permit us to give expression to our baser instincts.) The point is not that there is anything wrong with one religious system appropriating practices from another; all religions do this. The point, rather, is that his analysis is fundamentally wrong.

De Botton's approach is instrumental. Seeing the needs that religion meets, he assumes that various rituals and customs that inspire and educate in Judaism or Christianity (and elsewhere) can be stripped from these traditions and cobbled together to create a new tradition that will also inspire and educate but without the annoyance of theological conviction. But of course this will never work.

As learned as he is, he fails to see that the great religions work because their believers believe something. Yes, religions provide moral uplift and promote social wellbeing. But the sociological purpose is not the starting point; it is the welcome result. Committed engagement and enduring community come about, in substantial measure, precisely because religious people search for the sacred and embrace the holy. Committed engagement requires belief, even if it is uncertain, wavering belief. It is in reaching out for the transcendent -- for God, in all of God's mystery -- that religious people affirm the purpose of our world and the meaning of creation.

When God and belief are stripped out of the equation, as they are for de Botton, we are left with rituals and practices that are primarily hedonistic and hollow. What de Botton offers us is "religion for atheists," but what he gives us is pseudo-religion and empty routine.