This winter I read the Bible from cover to cover –all 2,000 pages from Genesis to Revelation–as a way to examine my ambivalence about religion. Although I was raised Catholic, I have barely entered a church as an adult beyond weddings, funerals, and a trip to Rome. (Tierra Santa, the theme park in Buenos Aires does not count). I oppose the church’s positions on contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage and Catholic candidate Rick Santorum’s wish to blur the boundary between church and state. I am horrified and saddened by the string of sexual abuse scandals, most recently today’s news that the Dutch Church castrated a young man who complained about abuse. After reading the Bible, I remain agnostic about the existence of God, the notion of the afterlife, and the efficacy of prayer. Yet for all its inconsistency, hypocrisy, and dogma–the text contains sound guidance for a moral and mindful life. An atheist might call me religious. A believer might call me an atheist. I prefer Conflicted Catholic, or Cafeteria Catholic who picks and rejects aspects of the faith as if it were a buffet and not a prix fixe meal.
But perhaps such labels are reductive or irrelevant. In his new book, Religion for Atheists, prolific pop philosopher Alain de Botton rejects the “boring debate” between faith and atheism to stake out a middle ground. To ease the pain and alienation of modern life, he argues, secular society should emulate and adapt insights from religion, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. He claims that the faithful are delusional in their supernatural beliefs, but that atheists throw out the baby with the bathwater. In his words: “Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?” (Yes, he is British). With his usual blend of diligence, humility, humor, and insight—De Botton embraces the holy oxymoron of religion for non-believers.
Religion for Atheists identifies nine areas where religion excels secular society in fulfilling humanity’s basic needs, then suggests how secular society might co-opt religious ideas. For example, he proposes: a quarterly Day of Atonement based on Yom Kippur, a restaurant modeled on liturgical feasts, and a university with a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying, and a Centre for Self-Knowledge. Artists and architects, he says, should renounce the modernist and academic notion that art is meaningless and reclaim the religious ideal that art is “a medium to remind us what matters.” Last but not least, he says secular society should emulate the effectiveness of religious and corporate institutions to communicate values. For example, psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors of all stripes might take inspiration from the prescribed procedures of Catholic Confession and McDonald’s franchises to form a national chain of therapy shops.
If this all sounds flip or blasphemous in summary, Religion for Atheists makes clear that De Botton has a profound respect for religion and deep concern for “problems of the modern soul.” In essence, the book is “an attempt to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching, and wise from all that no longer seems true.” These are not the sentiments of a wit or pundit, but rather someone sensitive to modern malaise, someone who offers a program that is nothing short of ambitious:
Some of the lessons we might retrieve from religions: How to generate feelings of community, how to promote kindness, how to cancel out the current bias toward commercial values in advertising, how to select and make use of secular saints, how to rethink the strategies of universities and our approach to cultural education, how to redesign hotels and spas, how better to acknowledge our own childlike needs, how to surrender some of our counterproductive optimism, how to achieve perspective through the sublime and transcendent, how to reorganize museums, how to use architecture to enshrine values — and finally, how to coalesce the scattered efforts of individuals interested in the care of souls and organize them under the aegis of institutions.
Although most of his proposals strike a hopeful tone, de Botton argues that secular society should adopt religion’s pessimism, by which he means lack of egoism and awareness of our own global, historical, and cosmic insignificance. He says this is especially crucial for Americans, “perhaps the most anxious and disappointed people on earth, for their nation infuses them with the most extreme hopes about what they may be able to achieve in their working lives and relationships.” Here, he has a point. Despite much evidence to the contrary, we remain a nation of optimists, as reflected in countless facets of popular culture: from Chrysler’s Halftime in America commercial during the Super Bowl, to presidential candidates, to our gadgets and their promises of instant bliss. In the spirit of dramatist, essayist, and Frontier Psychiatrist contributor Daniel F. Levin, De Botton suggests we’re Nothing Special, or at least not as special as we think.
In the spirit of all his work, and especially his most popular book (How Proust Can Change Your Life), De Botton makes it his mission to bridge the gap between intellectual life and real life. Religion for Atheists continues De Botton’s grand project to explore the various sources of human happiness and misery. The book incorporates his prior critiques of capitalism (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work), his distrust of insecure egoism (Status Anxiety), his belief that our physical environment influences mood (The Architecture of Happiness), and his fascination with the unrealistic pressure society places on romantic relationships (On Love). Like all of de Botton’s work, Religion for Atheists is a quick read, thanks to thematic chapters divided into short subsections. Photographs and illustrations break up the text and lighten the mood with provocative images and cheeky captions such as: “If we’re not careful even Hell gets boring.” Like many religious writers, De Botton’s weapon of choice is the aphorism.
De Botton is not the first to separate the wheat from the chaff in religion. In The Gospel According to Jesus, poet Stephen Mitchell translated only the few passages in the Gospels that struck him as historically or spiritually authentic and discarded the rest, an idea he borrowed from Thomas Jefferson. In Jesus and Yahweh : The Names Divine, Yale professor and Agnostic Jew Harold Bloom argues for both the literary and spiritual value of the Hebrew God and Jesus, by whom he means the man, not the Son of God. And as De Botton notes near the end of Religion for Atheists, his premise owes much to the French philosopher August de Compte, founder of the ill-fated Church for Humanity.
A similar notion appears in the new book Christianity After Religion, which traces the growing number of Americans who have fled organized religion for spiritual communities or individual spiritual endeavors. While this phenomenon may sound like a slippery slope to atheism, author Diana Butler Bass argues that it suggests the dawn of a new era, “a vast inter-religious progression toward individual and cultural transformation, and a wholly new kind of post-religious faith.” The argument carries more weight coming from a practicing Christian with a doctorate in religious studies.
Religion for Atheists is not a polemic. It won’t convince believers to abandon their faith, or atheists to get down on their knees and pray. But for anyone who appreciates the uses and disadvantages of religion, the book offers a thoughtful and provocative line of inquiry. Paradoxically both the Bible and Religion for Atheists allow room for individual interpretation and application of religious ideas and ideals, and a life of body and soul.