Book Review – Religion for Atheists

Posted on Updated on

Following closely on ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ which I reviewed recently, I have just read ‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton. An interesting juxtaposition really, with Sam Harris thumbing his nose at claims that religion has somehow enriched us, while de Botton in effect says ‘oh yeah?’.

Religion for Atheists took me by surprise. I’d heard a bit about how the author was a bit of an apologist and so on, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to read – a load of condescending hogwash.

And though the author maintains he is an atheist, the degree to which he bends over backwards to accommodate religion is worthy of a circus contortionist.

I’m sorry, it’s one long gush about how religion has enriched mankind, how impoverished atheist lives are, and how we would do well to borrow from the traditions of religion; though on those great religious traditions such as genocide, slavery and the inquisition he is mysteriously silent! Cherry-picking anyone? Oh well, you can only squeeze so much into a book, and there was all that gushing to fit in.

The author does accept that neither the religious nor the atheist communities will be happy with the book – the latter feeling outraged at the treatment of religion as though “it deserves to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings”. No, that wouldn’t outrage me. What outraged me was that this book offered up religion as much more than a touchstone – a much more immodest answer to life, the universe and everything, with apologies to the real Messiah, Douglas Adams, who at least was able to prove his divinity by creating the first ever trilogy consisting of 4 books, and thereby proving his mastery of the fundamental physical principles of the universe.

The author (de Botton, not Adams) divides the book neatly for us into the lessons religion can give, namely, community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions. I’d like to write a piece on each section, but the book doesn’t deserve the wear and tear on my laptop keyboard that would entail, so I’ll resist the temptation, and focus on some highlights and themes.

Now, a philosopher I’m not, but de Botton seems to obsess about the ego throughout the book, as if it is some evil attribute of mankind which must be squashed at every opportunity.  By extension, he feels that we should know our place in the universe and be humble, yada yada yada. He uses these devices liberally to underline the great gifts religion can bestow upon us.

The discussion about community goes along the lines you would expect – that religion has a lot to teach us about getting together in communities – never mind that people manage to do that just fine without religion. Surprisingly however, he does seem to advocate that breaking out of the norms of social expectations in some sort of (religiously inspired) 15th century Feast of Fools could provide a useful antidote to “the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful”. So, act like an idiot, and shag the neighbours once per year, and job done: pressures dealt with. Back to the office for more rationality and faithfulness. His suggestion has good empirical support in the world of AFL football in Australia, in which we have a tradition of Mad Monday at season’s end. That always ends well. If that’s his understanding of the pressures of modern life, then I’m afraid the whole book is based on a faulty premise.

The section on education is very wide-ranging, but the basic premise is that the content and delivery of secular education is directed at the brain and not the soul. (I do realise that he means ‘soul’ not in the religious sense, but rather that collection of ghostly and ill-defined attributes such as faith, charity, hope and love). He therefore proposes ‘sermons’ instead of ‘lectures’, to answer the key questions of life and getting on with each-other. All laudable – and in a sense I agree, which is why in previous discussions on this blog you’ll see a lot of stuff about the teaching of ethics in primary school. But to be clear, I don’t consider this position to be religious – rather, it’s a humanist one.

His discussion of tenderness is somewhat baffling I must say. The premise is illustrated by a little story of some guy down on his luck, stumbling into a church and gaining comfort from gazing at a picture of the Madonna. He feels that we should learn from religion, and perhaps create secular ‘temples of tenderness’, or other architectural spaces, in which our souls can get a great big hug to make everything ok. Really? We need buildings for that? I always thought that’s what people were for. Perhaps I’m just being naïve.

Now for pessimism. His basic premise here is that religion has always been great at insisting that we, and our relationships, are inherently flawed, and not to expect lasting happiness as a right. Perhaps I missed the aphorism “if you’re pessimistic, you’re never disappointed” in the bible. Well there are probably words to that effect in there, which demonstrates that it’s a secular concept. Written by humans, it’s a mental trick we play on ourselves as protection from disappointment – a bit like me when I started out reading this book.

I’m going to finish on perspective, because I’ve written about art and architecture briefly before here, and this book hasn’t really changed my view on it. And the last section, institutions, frankly bored me.

The section on perspective really annoyed me – it’s all about how religion helps us realise how insignificant we are, and how we should be humble (again, let’s beat that ego into submission, right?). As the author puts it:

Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness.

See what I mean about patronising? He accepts that science can also help us to feel paltry – activities such as understanding the size of the cosmos and so on. But his main point is that this feeling is somehow therapeutic, and refers as evidence to Spinoza’s view of the stars that: “It is through their contemplation that the secular are afforded the best chance of experiencing redemptive feelings of awe”. How exactly it is therapeutic or redemptive is not really addressed to my satisfaction.

He also pushes the travails of our biblical friend Job – and how instead of an explanation for his misery, he is offered a reminder that he can never understand some things, some mysteries. On this, De Botton opines:

God’s whirlwind, and the sonorous, sublime words he speaks, excite a pleasing terror in his audience, a sense of how petty are man’s disasters in comparison with the ways of eternity, leaving Job – and the rest of us, perhaps – a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails”.

To use the literary term, what a load of bollocks. His message is to simply accept that you won’t be able to understand some things, and you’ll feel better. Have a cup of tea and lie down. Things will look better in the morning. He goes on to suggest that:

Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master.

No. I simply don’t accept such a defeatist and puerile position. So, at what point should we stop trying to master things? He goes further:

Thus we would do well to meditate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometres which comprise a single light year, or perhaps the luminosity of the largest known start in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant…… {insert more gee-whiz numbers in here…}

OMG. He seems a bit freaked by big numbers, doesn’t he? Does he really think that meditating on the fact that light travels 9.5 x 1012 km in year will bring about some change in our psyche? And surely if he’d heeded his own advice in the previous quote, we would never have understood the implications of the speed of light in the first place.

No, the gee-whiz knowledge he cites is just mundane, but nonetheless a significant accomplishment of mankind, without the necessity to be humble in the process. And rather than consoling us, or somehow encouraging us to be happy with our current state, knowledge serves to make mankind thirst for even more knowledge. And so it should.

I’ll be very interested to see how other people feel about this book, but it’s a thumbs-down from me.