Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Title: Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Author: Alain de Botton
Publisher: Vintage International
Publication Date: 2011
Genre: nonfiction, religion, philosophy, atheism

I will let the author do the recapping for me: “The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.” Thanks for making a reviewer’s job easy Alain!

Alain de Botton takes this perspective (basically, don’t throw the baby out with the holy water) and attempts to apply it to the problem of modern, secular life over ten chapters covering topics ranging from community to education to art to institutions. A pattern quickly emerges: he identifies an area where secular life lets us down; identifies a particular religion (usually Catholicism) that does it better; and proposes some completely ridiculous, entirely impractical way that “secular society” can incorporate lessons from that religion to improve our lives.

Let me state up front that I come to this book as a non-believer, so when de Botton begins the book with “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true —  in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings” I was seriously ON BOARD. My (mostly likely wildly ignorant) impression is that a lot of books about atheism or agnosticism start from the perspective of “your religion is wrong and lemme tell you about it to prove that my atheism is right.” That has always struck me as a) a complete waste of time, b) wildly insensitive, and c) wildly insecure.

Unfortunately, he proceeds in the next sentence to summarily state that all religions are not true. Why answer the world’s most boring and unproductive question in your second paragraph? *shrugs* I should’ve known then how frustrating this book would be.

I am not a believer, but I AM human being who a) is going through a somewhat challenging phase in her life, b) is open to wisdom that can help with those struggles, whatever the provenance, and c) took the title literally, that this would be a guide to the uses of religion for me, a non-believer.  This meant that in each chapter, this would happen to me:

  • Step 1: Yeah, you’re right Alain de Botton. That is an area of life where non-belief can leave us all a little cold and without comfort. I wonder what I can do about that?
  • Step 2: Yeah, you’re right Alain de Botton. For religious people (usually Catholics) that aspect of their religion must offer a lot of comfort! I wonder if this can help me?
  • Step 3: No, you’re wrong Alain de Botton. Taking the aspect of religion you identify in step 1 and translating them into completely bizarre, only-going-to-happen in crazypants sci-fi “solutions” ain’t gonna help me. I do not need restaurants where I am forced to talk to strangers and participate in regular orgies. I’m good, pal. Thanks for nothing.

Ok, maybe that last bit is a little harsh, but I think it’s because the premise of this book was so, so for me. I actually got a lot out of this books (or from steps 1 and 2 of each section). It’s given me tons to think about, and I suspect may of the ideas he presents will continue to percolate in my brain and make me a better person. It’s just that pragmatist in me was hoping for a little more practical guidance from this “guide” to religion.

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • “The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, Human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage.”
  • “Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness.”
  • “It is more bearable to own up to our follies when the highest authority has told us that we are all childishly yet forgivably demented to begin with.”
  • “Those of us who hold no religions or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualized encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence.”



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