Religion for Atheists: Reviews
Rowland Manthorpe in the Telegraph, 03 February 2012
This book should carry a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style warning: DON’T PANIC. Don’t panic, this is not another contribution to the “debate” about God, the Eton wall game of contemporary discourse, where no one can see the ball, no one knows what the rules are, and there hasn’t been a goal in more than 100 years. Alain de Botton is an atheist, but he has no time for the “unproductive question” of whether or not religion is true. His concern is the ways in which religions can be useful, even to non-believers.
De Botton has no qualms about cherry-picking from religions. He is only doing, he says, what Christianity did when it repackaged pagan celebrations of midwinter as Christmas. In his analysis, a Catholic Mass is a web of techniques to “strengthen congregants’ bonds of affection”, and the Jewish Day of Atonement becomes a “psychologically effective mechanism” for the resolution of social conflict. Yet, from these apparently cold judgements, he draws profound lessons for everyday living. It’s Gareth Malone meets Matthew Arnold: high-minded yet practical, told in penetrating, stately prose.
For de Botton, secular society needs to learn from religion if it is to realise its full potential. Universities are especially remiss. The institutions of liberal humanism fail their students, de Botton argues, because they concentrate solely on remedying ignorance when they should be aspiring to create “better, wiser and happier people”. In de Botton’s ideal university, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would “be assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage”.
The underlying theme is de Botton’s religiously inspired awareness of human childishness. “We are all in the end rather infantile, incomplete, unfinished, easily tempted and sinful.” Yet while Christianity gave us parables and timetables and repetition on a massive scale, secular education relies on one-off lectures at the age of 20, and secular culture infuses us with extravagant assumptions about our worth and prospects. Religion for Atheists is a beautiful book. A few unimaginative mock-ups that scream “graphic designer” aside, de Botton’s philosophy could not be better illustrated.
In a country where more than 60 per cent of people see themselves as belonging to a religion yet only five per cent attend services, Religion for Atheists might be said to be our default state. We even have a name for it: we call it the Church of England. De Botton’s inspiring book manages to condemn this compromise while offering a glimpse of a more enlightened path. If not every one of his proposals hits the mark, that only shows the scale of the task ahead.