Review: An atheist considers a new book meant for him
RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. By Alain de Botton. Pantheon. 320 pages. $26.95.
Theists and atheists will find something to love, something to hate and quite a bit to think about in this book. Early on, Alain de Botton says, “Let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.” However, most of the book argues that atheists should adopt religious practices.
De Botton is essentially telling atheists, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” But it’s not easy to distinguish the baby from the bathwater.
Religious fundamentalists will see a baby in holy water with nothing to throw out, while some atheists will see poisoned water with no baby in it.
De Botton contends that even though supernatural claims of religion are entirely false, no secular school of thought has ever attained the popularity, influence or fervor enjoyed by Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.
He says humans invented religion because the earliest communities needed to control their members’ tendencies toward violence. Religion also served to foster harmony and forgiveness.
De Botton envisions a world free from religion’s superstitions and open to the needs of humans for community and inspiration. Most atheists will acknowledge the power of religion and can be receptive to appropriating workable ideas from religion, just as some religions have done from one another.
The problem for most atheists is that the religious cures de Botton recommends are usually worse than the so-called secular diseases. Here are a few examples.
People are generally happier when they can put aside their work and domestic obligations, and gather around a table to enjoy good food and meaningful conversation. De Botton proposes Agape Restaurants similar to the Eucharist, where friends and strangers can congregate for moving experiences as they share their inner lives. But pre-assigned rituals that simulate the practices of those who find comfort in the Eucharist would not uplift atheists. Christians who believe they are eating the body and drinking the blood of a savior do not equate their Eucharist “meal” to dining out with friends.
Religious belief provides structure on how to lead our lives. De Botton compares Catholic confession favorably to psychotherapy, which is inconsistent. He likes the precision and standardization of the confessional booth.
An atheist would argue that though psychotherapy may be inconsistent, it is responsive to individual needs and respectful of individual circumstances of life. The uniformity and standardization de Botton praises in the confessional booth relies on dogmatically defined notions of sin.
Having been a math professor at the College of Charleston for more than 30 years, I agree with some of the problems de Botton identifies at universities. Professors care about the ideas they present, as they should, but often spend too little time on how best to impart these ideas. Students are usually given more material than they can assimilate and they struggle to hold onto what matters most. When occasionally I run across former students who tell me they enjoyed my courses, I ask what they remember. Most might recall a comment or two that I made, but not so much the mathematics.
So what is de Botton’s solution to the education failure? Repetition and more repetition. He suggests that re-reading texts and repeating rituals, as done in the yearly cycle of Torah (Hebrew Bible) readings, might serve as models for secular instruction aimed at inculcating. However powerful an idea, it becomes more so when parishioners exclaim in unison at every point, “Thank you Jesus.” De Botton would like a chorus of students to shout their approval after every sentence of a powerful essay.
De Botton seems unable to distinguish education from indoctrination. Repetition is fine for memorizing dogma, but not for mastering concepts. Christians and Jews may feel comforted by an unquestioned certainty of belief as they read from holy books that haven’t much changed in more than 2,000 years. While more inspiring and creative methods of secular instruction might be needed, that should not come at the expense of encouraging students to question, challenge, analyze, test and argue in order to come to new understandings and make new discoveries. That’s what education is about.
De Botton praises religion’s benefits while ignoring atrocities committed in the name of religion. He would like atheists to pick and choose from religion and reach some kind of consensus that meets the emotional and intellectual needs of all secular people. I think he has an impossible task. Whose values would get promoted? Applying some absolute standards for right and wrong, and instituting artificial rituals, looks too much like the indoctrination that drove many away from religious institutions.
This book is well-written and does provoke a discussion on what it means to be good without God.
My primary disappointment in de Botton, who was raised as a secular Jew in Switzerland, is that he seems completely unfamiliar with the varieties of humanist and atheist communities that are growing in this country and others. There are organized, nontheistic, religious communities for secular Jews; ethical culture societies; and humanist Unitarians. There are flourishing non-religious communities of atheists and humanists, including the local Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.
Everything de Botton says atheists need within religion, atheists are finding without religion. We don’t need traditional religion to teach us how to be moral and compassionate, how to find awe and beauty in the universe, or how to love.
Reviewer Herb Silverman, founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America and author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt”