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Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012)
by Alain De Botton
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http://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2013/01/Religion-Atheisten ( )
This is the kind of book that will provide lots of material for criticism for those disposed to dislike it. Alain de Botton does not shy away from mixing creative, even outlandish, ideas with a sounds and fascinating analysis of what secular culture loses without religion. He does not treat religions or the religious with kid gloves nor does he give into the denigration of religion common among the "New Atheist" flag bearers. To give an idea of the tone of the book, we can start with the opening:
The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true ... To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense. ...If this excerpt is intriguing, you may well like the book. If it puts you on the defensive, be warned that it continues in this style.
Yes, some of the ideas seem impractical; others are delightful. What matters is not so much the specific ideas as the overarching message that humans are multifaceted creatures, and the current secular society ignores many of those facets. I greatly enjoyed the book.
Having read the book and many of its reviews, it seems to me people are at odds with what Botton is saying. Many have written that he’s mostly singing the praises of religion(s) and has made illogical leaps. To me, it didn’t quite come across like that, though I can’t entirely agree with all of what he had to say.
To clear the air: no, he doesn’t praise religion all the time. Like all things, religions have good and bad sides, with the atheists firmly highlighting the latter. Button argues that religion and religious institutions have practices and traditions that have a lot to offer to the secular world.
One of those practices is ritualistic practices that remove the barrier for egoism. He proposes a new form of a “secular restaurant” where people can all sit together at a communal table and really talk it out. Unlike a regular restaurant, this is a choreographed mass gathering (he uses a Jewish tradition as an example). People have to follow rituals that are designed to forge bonds by breaking egoism and racism. See, people don’t talk to each other in fear of being rebuffed. By removing that boundary, Button argues, people can explore their real selves. Rather than focusing on worldly things, conversation will be about revealing yourself (‘What’s your greatest regret?’). By doing so, one can form meaningful relationships and have a better understanding of who they are.
He takes and applies another similar concept to university and museums. Button writes: “While universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, they remain wholly uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom.” As for museums, he notes how they were once considered “temples for the contemplation of the profound,” but are now lame. People visit the museum to be inspired, but “the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike.”
What’s causing the problem? These places are designed to pass on facts but not what to do with them. It’s a loss in understanding how to transmit wisdom. He argues that religions emphasize repetition and focus on fundamental human nature. Instead of prescribing, secular institutions rely on the audience to make their own connections and put the ideas into practice.
I believe Botton has a point, yet some of his ideas are ludicrous and outlandish. His point on secularism’s failure to impart insight is strong. However, his solution to it feels rather… strange. I can’t quite imagine students shouting out their responses after every lecture. As a teacher, I emphasize repetition a lot in class, which works and doesn’t work. Prescribing goes against modern values, I believe, and society now values autonomy and independence.
But I like his vision of a revised museum, one that’s organized by theme rather than an era. Gallery of Compassion, Gallery of Fear, and Gallery of Self-knowledge are some of the exhibits he believes will lead to us a better understanding of ourselves.
Of course, like everything, the book has its ups and downs. It warrants neither a five nor a one-star rating. Ultimately, you must read the book and decide whether his argument is strong or silly. For me, it was an interesting experience that rode the wave between silliness and profoundness - as all things should be.
Although I am not a religious person I do not class myself as an atheist, I would say I am more an agnostic with Buddhist leanings. For this reason I have always been very interested in religions and from time to time I will read about various world religions. I have also in the past read books on atheism, including The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I picked up this book because the title implied that it mixed an atheists outlook with an appreciation of religion, a viewpoint that I hadn't read about before.
Alain de Botton looks at ten different things and how, as the modern world has developed into a more secular society they have been adversely affected. These ten things are wisdom, community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions. He then goes onto explain how, in his opinion, we can take lessons from religions to improve these aspects of our lives and remain a secular society. This is something that I broadly would agree with. For example we can all stand to be more compassionate and although religion is often a source of conflict it does create some very compassionate individuals.
Sadly this book just didn't work for me and although it did raise a few good points, too often his solutions were very badly thought out. For just one example, he states that modern restaurants are set up in such a way which prevents everyone mingling together and talking. His solution is to change our restaurants so that this can happen as there are no places where we can mingle and talk in a social setting. I would counter this by saying that pubs and coffee shops fulfill this need perfectly fine. The reasons why we tend not to interact with strangers in the street is not down to lack of communal seating in restaurants.
The book is well written and yet somehow I really trudged through some chapters and I was looking forward to finishing it. I did learn some new things about religion in the book, in particular about the Jewish faith but not enough to redeem it in my eyes.
The fundamental idea of this book is that, as we have moved away from organized religion towards a more rational society, we have failed to address the reasons people are drawn to religion in the first place. And that we need address this deficit.
I know the author gets a lot of criticism for over-simplifying some complex ideas, but I disagree that this is what he is doing in this book. First he describes how religion can address spiritual needs, but that addressing these needs don’t necessarily require faith in an unseen deity. He then offers ways that secular society has ignored these needs. Finally, he offers ways that secular “temples” could be built that would address them.
Overall a really interesting book filled with compelling ideas, and a great conversation starter
"…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."
"One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn't be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised."
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Wikipedia in English (3)
What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton's inspiring book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false--but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world. Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it--because the world's religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, de Botton (a non-believer himself) proposes that we look to religion for insights into how to, among other concerns, build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world.--From publisher description.
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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.