4 Followers
25 Following
localcharacter

localcharacter

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion - Alain De Botton Religion for Atheists suggests that there is cultural value to some things that religions do, even for people who don't practice or believe any religion. But the problem with the book is apparent from its title: like the word "atheist" ("without-god") itself, it defines us by an absence. When the "missing" element was never present or relevant or meaningful in the first place, it anchors to nothing. De Botton almost always argues from some assumed shared value or history or familiarity with religious practice, rather than the inherent value of his suggestions.De Botton says: ...first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. [p. 12] Those do sound like great needs indeed, and addressing them is a noble mission. The problem is that, to make his case, De Botton goes back to religious examples—of art, architecture, institutions, etc.—and shows how they can be substituted with non-religious versions to the same end.Here's an example: On p. 131, he suggests that "Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers." What he's after here is those preachers' energy and engagement with their audience, calling forth wisdom through oratorical force in a kind of amped-up Socratic method. But his reference is the preachers, not Socrates: the religious practice to be substituted, not its secular equivalent. Or on p. 186: "Christianity and Judaism present marriage not as a union inspired and governed by subjective enthusiasm but rather, and more modestly, as a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in society and thence, with the help of a close friend, undertake to nurture and educate the next generation"—and here De Botton missteps—"under divine guidance." The core argument of marriage equality partisans is that marriage should be entirely a civic and social institution, with no reference whatsoever to religion or divinity—is De Botton then on the other side?The redesigned universities of the future would draw upon the same rich catalogue of culture treated by their traditional counterparts, likewise promoting the study of novels, histories, plays and paintings, but they would teach this material with a view to illuminating students' lives rather than merely prodding at academic goals. [p. 121] De Botton himself has put his ideas in practice, in The School of Life in London. It looks like a marvelous thing—though right now it's advertising [a:Jonah Lehrer on "genius," not imagination or creativity, and you may already know what I think of his casual conflation of such terms—and there's not the least whiff of religion about it. I wish he'd been able to keep his book as clean.Now, aside from its indirect inclusion of the thing it claims to want to eliminate, the book itself is well done. De Botton's style is personable and witty, but never frivolous; he demonstrates exactly the kind of secular wisdom he's promoting. He continues with what's becoming one of his trademarks: copious photos (probably a hundred or more, never sharing a page with the text) which add to the argument even without words. In fact, I'd say almost all of them could do without captions, leaving it to the reader to interpret them and discover their connection to the text. In that, De Botton approaches (in a very minor way) W.G. Sebald—and if heroes of the secular mind and spirit are still to be called "saints," then Sebald was a saint indeed.Added later: I figured out a way to describe what I wanted this book to be vs. what it is. What it is: Gosh, people put so much effort into religion—what ever could be the reason? Maybe all the ceremonies and practices have some other purpose related to human fulfillment? Let's strip them down and figure out what that purpose is, and then see if we can replicate it in a non-religious context.And what I wanted it to be: Hmm, humans have certain complex and non-obvious psychological and social needs. How could they be addressed? Wow, look! That's the same kinds of things religions do!