Religion for Atheists: Reviews
Jeanette Winterson in the Times, 4 February 2012
Alain de Botton is a believer — but not in God.
Religion for Atheists begins and ends with the idea that secular society needs its own institutions that give space and support to our inner life. We need systems, structures, rituals, directed reading, fellowship, visual encouragement and regular discipline of the kind the great religions of the world have offered for thousands of years. What we don’t need is the ideology and dogma that comes with a belief in the Divine.
His argument is attractive because when we look around we see we are in crisis on all sides. Active religion of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish kinds has been occupied by fundamentalism in its crusading or evangelical forms. The war-mongering, bigotry and misogyny of the clamouring faiths will not forward humankind on Earth. Their mandate from the Divine should be rejected as the evil absurdity that it is.
But as the current global crisis has made so clear, humans without God are neither better behaved nor more capable of acting creatively and responsibly than humans who use God to justify their actions.
Our present predicament is moral as well as financial. Rational thinking and scientific progress neither prevented the crisis nor provided answers to address it. Legislation will deal with some of the symptoms but none of the causes. We are financially bankrupt because we are morally bankrupt.
Alain de Botton doesn’t want to be a prophet crying in the wilderness. For him the great triumph of organised religion is exactly that: organisation. A calendar of feasts and observances to help us to remember our good fortune and our obligations to others. Sacred texts to which we return for instruction and contemplation. Beautiful buildings — whether churches or temples — where we can meet without fear, and where the lonely or the stranger can be welcomed too. Rituals that help us to cross the various thresholds of our lives, whether of birth and death, marriage or puberty. Structures visible and invisible to support us when we suffer and struggle, as well as when we need to celebrate and rejoice.
The Jewish Day of Atonement, for instance, when everyone must examine their conduct and make reparation where they have offended, would be an excellent new Bank Holiday — and let the banks fund it.
How about an electronic version of the Wailing Wall? That way we could all see how difficult life is and feel less alone, though this might turn into a Facebook for depressives.
We should reorganise our museums, says de Botton, so that they provide contemplation and encouragement, not just information and a passive gazing experience. Art is purposeful and pushes towards the good in us. I like it that he is unafraid to talk about art as having the capacity to make us better — that is, both healed up and more able. Art and architecture, for so many years in bold and active service to religious belief, can be equally powerful in a world without God but with values. We should build for beauty and freedom of spirit, argues de Botton. And we should build new, secular but spiritual places where we can renew ourselves, alone and together.
He proposes, to begin with, a tower in the City of London as a place for contemplation, as well as a series of “Agape” restaurants, where long tables of the monastic refectory kind would allow people to eat and talk together. Their talk would not be aimless chatter, but guided, with little books of instruction.
This, he claims, would help us to appreciate each other as more than our jobs and our incomes. And it would be the opposite of speed dating — there would be no agenda and no pressure — simply a way of spending time together enjoyably. We don’t know how to build communities any more, but religions have always built them around eating together: Passover, the Buddhist tea ceremony, the Last Supper, Christmas.
This is a nice idea, and to make it accessible to all the food industry might be persuaded to subsidise it.
There isn’t much in de Botton’s thesis about who is going to pay for a new spiritual world of billboards that say “FORGIVENESS” instead of “CRISPS”. One of his charts graphically displays the amount spent in the UK every year on Pringles — £67 million — and the amount spent on poetry books: £6.5 million.
Religions have always taken money from the rich — lots of it — as well as tithes from believers, so that access and instruction can be free of charge. Alain de Botton’s School of Life charges £12.50 to hear a Sunday sermon. Day courses cost about £125. This is understandable but problematic. How can the poor afford a new and necessary spiritual dimension? The riots last year were evidence enough that the poor and the dispossessed need a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose as desperately as do the academic and the lawyer.
For anyone fed up of the Dawkins Delusion that rationality and science are the answer to the human condition, Religion for Atheists is a serious and optimistic set of practical ideas that could improve and alter the way we live. It will be easy to mock this attempt at a different kind of spiritual blueprint: it is undemocratic, uncosted and myopically middle class, but it is energetic and on the side of the angels. At least Alain de Botton is trying to do something about the frightening mess that we are in.