Religion for Atheists

Quite a few people have suggested Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists” to me, and I also read Jack’s review with interests a few months ago. Given the brevity of the book, I decided it was certainly worth a quick read to see what it was all about.

The book begins by saying suggesting that the least interesting question we can ask of any religion is whether it is true. This has been a point of some criticism from reviews but I wonder if many have actually missed the central point of the assertion.

What Botton actually means, and perhaps a better way to phrase it would have been, “given we know religion is completely untrue – there clearly isn’t a god and we all know it – what interesting discussions can we have about it?”

From this perspective, his comment makes make more sense and also perhaps explains why he paints religion in such a positive light. It isn’t that he is wearing rose tint glasses, but merely starts from a point where we acknowledge religion is both untrue and destructive, but there are some good features that have allowed it to flourish. Of course I don’t know if this is the case, Botton does not state it, so perhaps he is guilty of the rose tint after all.

The book consists of a series of chapters looking at various aspects of religions and how they could be implemented in a secular way. Laying out restaurants to encourage discussion with strangers, creating mile stones and celebrations, and delivering academic lectures with the passion of evangelical preachers are just some of the suggestions that spring forth.

I read them with mixed reactions, some I like, some not so much. A stronger focus on interesting delivery of academic content for example would certainly have improved my university days. I often struggled to stay awake in lectures and remembered nothing, in which cases a smaller amount of repetitive information would have actually increased learning.

Milestones also play an important part in our lives – this is clear from the half a million people that attended a Humanist ceremony this year. As Jack points out, the historical tradition and grandeur of gradation helps to provide such an occasion in the secular world already though.

In summary, I think Botton is generally on the right track, but then I would, holding the same position. Religion has endured throughout our history, and even onto the days when we know it is patently false, because it provides for our “spiritual” (for lack of a better term) needs. Extracting these into a secular context is essential to removing superstition from our society. Whether Botton’s suggestions are the way to do it remains unclear though.

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