Monday, February 06, 2012

Review: Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists (like Alain de Botton's other books) is fluently and entertainingly written. The arguments are cogent and well made. I didn't agree with everything in the book, but it certainly put out some interesting ideas.

One thing that surprised me was that, unlike some of his other books (such as The Consolations of Philosophy), it did not reference many other writers or efforts in this field, although it generously acknowledged the efforts of Auguste Comte to invent a universal religion in the 19th century. The acknowledgements at the end did mention Richard Holloway, Daniel Dennett, Mark Vernon and so on. I was a bit surprised there was no mention of Karen Armstrong, since she has done much to move the debate on from whether religions are literally true to whether they are of value.

Perhaps a supplementary work could survey the history of religion for atheists, liberal religion, creedless religion, the development of humanism, pantheism, naturalism and so on.

The basic premise of the book is that many of the areas of endeavour for religions - encouraging us to be more compassionate, build communities, connect with nature, and spend time reflecting and meditating - have been badly secularised, and in some cases not secularised at all.

Where, asks de Botton, are the temples of values such as compassion, community and love? Where are the secular places where we can be reminded that we are not alone in our suffering, and thereby be cathartically relieved of it?

The book also points out the techniques by which religions inculcate values into their practitioners: by having special days and special rituals to enshrine these values in our hearts, and by repeating these festivals on a regular basis, and allowing us to share our responses to suffering, beauty and love in a communal setting.

Actually, many of these techniques have been continued in liberal religions which welcome atheists without trying to change their mind about being atheists, such as Buddhism, Paganism, and Unitarianism. But Western practitioners of these religions - which may have thrown the baby out with the bath water in some aspects of their religious life - would do well to read Religion for Atheists to see what we have omitted. One obvious thing is the use of images, which many Unitarian chapels do not have.

The bit I was not sure I agreed with was the idea that institutions are a good thing. In many ways they are, and it would be great if lone thinkers like Nietzsche could have been accommodated somewhere where they could get on with thinking and writing, and not have to worry where the next meal was coming from - but perhaps Nietzsche's thought would have been very different if he had been a tenured professor. Institutions can be stultifying, produce conformity and complacency, and persecute minorities.

I do agree that the most boring question you can ask of a religion is whether it is true. Taking the story literally, whether you decide that it’s true or false, kills the multiple meanings that can be teased out of the story. It also ignores the many other great stories which follow the same mythological pattern: Isis and Osiris, Orpheus and Eurydice, Inanna and Dumuzi. The endless arguments about whether miracles can really happen, whether the earth was created, and whether God was really a man in Palestine, are boring to people who want to move on from the question of whether the story is literally true, to whether it will help us to live well.

The section on Auguste Comte's universal religion was very interesting. I suspect that his religion failed for several reasons; the fact that it was the idea of one person; but also the fact that it did not grow and emerge organically. Religions are like languages - they evolve and grow in their particular cultural and historical context. Esperanto failed as a universal language because it was not wedded to a culture and did not grow organically. Latin succeeded in remaining the lingua franca in Europe for several centuries after it ceased to be the language of Rome because people wanted to buy into the values of Romanitas and perpetuate the order and culture of the Roman Empire. The religions that will emerge from the wreckage of traditional religious belief in the West will be ones that builds on the traditions of the past, not a newly-invented one. Alain de Botton may well be hailed as a prophet in this newly emergent religion, but I doubt that he will be regarded as its founder - and I'm sure he wouldn't want to be.

As Richard Holloway pointed out in his review, I suspect the people who will like this book will be atheists and agnostics who are already involved in liberal religious organisations like the Sea of Faith, Unitarianism, pantheism, Paganism, Buddhism and so on. I certainly recommend it, and hope that it will start a more thoughtful conversation about where religion comes from, where it is now, and where it is going.


Angela @ said...

It sounds like I would like this.

I think I came to Unitarianism looking for a source of atheist spirituality (as one thing that might be offered to people). Whilst it is a beautiful vibrant faith, it has only rarely offered me what I'm looking for. I have met other Unitarians looking for the same thing though.

Perhaps it's one of those things that you realise if you want doing, you'll have to do it yourself.

Yewtree said...

I think you would like it.

What I like about Unitarianism is that the theists appear to mean much the same by "God" as I mean by "not-God".

Yes, why not start an atheist spirituality group - do a workshop at GA? The ones at FUSE were a great start but there's more to be explored.

Angela @ said...

Oooh. What would be good is something like 'Spirituality with or without God'. I'm not looking for somethings that necessarily require non-belief, but things that work well without belief in God. And, theists should be just as welcome as all types of non-theists.

Yewtree said...

That's a great title - go for it.

Steve Hayes said...

Karen Armstrong, since she has done much to move the debate on from whether religions are literally true to whether they are of value

I think that was done by the functionalist sociologists of the 1930s and 1940s.