Religion for Atheists: Reviews

Richard Holloway in the Literary Review

Read at the Literary Review website

There are two schools of interpretation in Christian theology that appear to be in direct contradiction to each other but are, in fact, compatible. There is the conservative or ‘realist’ account of faith, which is a high-octane supernaturalism. It holds that there is a real God out there who made everything that exists and sustains it in being by his providence. He actively intervenes in history and performs miracles that selectively interrupt natural processes, the most scandalous being his own incarnation in the person of a first-century Jew who, before resuming his place at God’s right hand in Heaven, established an institution to continue his work on earth until his return at the end of time to punish the wicked and reward the good. Given the odd variation here and there, this was the view that prevailed until a couple of hundred years ago, when two separate streams of scholarship began to undermine it. The first stream was the application of the historical-critical method to the study of sacred texts; and the second was the application of the scientific method to the study of the earth and its life forms. Thus was produced the famous double whammy that caused the Victorian crisis of faith, the reverberations of which are still with us.

But what appears to be a catastrophe for traditional theology is, for the other school of interpretation, a liberating shift towards a naturalistic understanding of religion itself. For the radical or ‘non-realist’ theologian, everything expressed by the conservative perspective outlined above remains in place, the big difference being that it is now viewed as an entirely human construct. Religion is understood as an invention of the human imagination, a work of art through which we have found a way of talking about ourselves and our place in the universe. It is valued as poetry not science, myth not mathematics; and myth is understood to have an enduringly useful role in interpreting ourselves to ourselves. Indeed, it is argued that the primordial function of religion was mythist not realist. Realism was a misunderstanding of religion’s original role in the human story. Nietzsche pointed out that it is because of their failure to understand the true nature of myth that religions begin to die. When myths are historicised and protagonists claim that they are descriptions of actual events in the past, they lose their power to speak to us today. Read as the script of a historical event in a Mesopotamian garden, the story of Adam and Eve leaves us cold. Understood as a myth about incessant human discontent, we see ourselves in the story and are prompted to examine our lives. Myth mirrors the complexity of our lived experience; its metaphors reflect our own struggles and remind us of our tragic condition as self-conscious animals who know they are going to die and wonder how to make their lives mean something while they are here. Religion helps us regulate and ameliorate our disordered longings. As Wittgenstein put it, religious beliefs are rules of life dressed up in pictures.

Unfortunately, the complexity of religion and its different uses are not reflected in the current punch-up between scornful atheists and militant religious realists, which is why Alain de Botton’s fascinating new book will be welcomed by people who are bored with the Punch and Judy show. His readers will be people who sympathise with Punch’s atheism because they can no longer believe in a supernatural deity, but who are not unsympathetic to Judy’s religion because they detect many virtues in it and feel instinctively that an institution that’s been around so long must have something going for it. The purpose of de Botton’s book is to identify and retain some of the values that religion can teach us. Among these values he counts the generation of the feeling of community; the promotion and inculcation of kindness; the development of habits of self-discipline which will moderate our greed and cupidity; and the need to identify people of virtue we can look up to. Along the way he rethinks the nature and purpose of higher education and national cultural policy. He has brilliantly provocative things to say about how we should reorganise our museums and galleries to help us improve the human condition. As an added bonus he provides the Tate Modern with a diagram on how to do it. Trustees will find his suggestion on page 245 and it should be the first item of business for their next meeting.

But while he ranges widely in his exposition, there is something he does not say. His book sets out to plunder religious traditions for disciplines and practices that could be followed with profit by people who have no desire to join religious institutions. For the wise among them it will be an enduringly useful guide. But what about those who hold onto membership of religious organisations? My hunch is that this is the group who will find his book most helpful. Though it is aimed at unbelievers, I’ve got a feeling that a lot of uneasy believers will welcome it like a well of water in a dry place. No surprise there. The history of religion is full of such paradoxes. Welcome to another one.

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