The Common Good

A Noted Atheist (No Not That One, The Other One) on What Religion Can Teach Non-Believers

Alain de Botton. Image via www.alaindebotton.com.
Alain de Botton. Image via www.alaindebotton.com.

This is not another book that simply critiques religion. In Religion For Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton, a noted author on a wide range of themes – from architecture to the works of Proust – examines those engaging and helpful aspects of religion (particularly focusing on Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism) that might, as he puts it, “fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society.”

Anyone who might be offended by a work that from the outset (indeed on its very first page) asserts that “of course no religions are true in any God-given sense”, is encouraged to steer clear of this book by the author himself.

It is a book that seems to swing between revulsion of religion and the “religious colonization” that atheists are charged to reverse and a recognition that all is not well in the secular world, and that these ills may be somewhat righted by looking toward religion – let me clarify – toward those aspects of religious traditions that de Botton believes are relevant to the world today: community, kindness, education and art, for example.

The very first subject to be tackled is that of community – something that Sojourners knows a little something about (check out Nicole Higgins’ recent review of Wanderlust for some insights) – and what strikes me as interesting is that de Botton’s hypothesis on the loss of community mirrors a phrase often spoken by Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis:

Did we lose our sense of community when we began to privatize our faith?

This question mirrors the argument made by Wallis when he asserts that “faith is personal, but never private,” precisely because maintaining only a private faith limits one’s ability to play a part in building a community of faith.

De Botton seems distressed that the loss has been so dramatic that we often “give no sign of even noticing the millions of humans who are eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating and dying only centimeters away from” us – a distress that fills Sojo.net every day. He fears that capitalism “may even prefer it if we have no contact with our neighbors at all, lest they detain us on our way to the office.”

Church, he observes, “actively breaks down the economic and status subgroups within which we normally operate, casting us into a wider sea of humanity.” He beautifully recognizes that,

“If there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it is because the Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly as representing aspects of humanity and … of ourselves which we are tempted to deny, but which bring us, when we can acknowledge them, closer to our need for one another.”

De Botton’s recognition that the church often gets community right, by virtue simply of gathering in the same place for the same purpose, is encouraging. Within the church, we are often very ready to dismiss people as “pew-fillers.” While the goal of the church from the point-of-view of a believer is to be a disciple, to truly engage in the mission of the church, is completely correct, we should not discredit the fact that spending time in a common space for a common purpose is a powerful image for those seeking community. De Botton’s suggestion for a secular interpretation is an agape restaurant, modeled after the Last Supper, where “guests would…be signaling their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship” by breaking bread together.

Throughout Religion For Atheists I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the ideas that the author offers. While many of them run completely counter to the theological beliefs of any Christian (or Jew or Buddhist), they are engaging arguments, and one’s that encourage a level of examination of our own beliefs.

De Botton gently chastises the Enlightenment philosophers’ assertion that humans are inherently good — a fact he suggests that leads us to feel like failures as we consistently fail to measure up to this high ideal. We are more likely to see our achievements and failings in equal measure, as well as develop deeper community if we are able to respond to the question “Who are you to tell me how to live” with the simple answer: “A fellow sinner.”

In his discussion on what religion can teach the non-believer about education, de Botton recognizes that the lack of theological study in modern times has been replaced by the study of culture, most clearly found at the university level. He wonders, however, if universities in their current forms are as adept as the faiths to impart “a repertoire of wisdom,” an education beyond the facts — one that is “not only true, but inwardly beneficial.” The atheistic aversion to “the content of religious belief” has become so strong, that religions role (in de Botton’s eyes) to “provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives” has been ignored, to the detriment of society-at-large.

What can the secular world learn from Christianity when it comes to education? To put it at the simplest level, it is about delivery. “We may”, de Botton declares, “be reading the right books,” but very rarely does the secular world ask the right questions of them — because when we do, we risk vulnerability (which is too often identified as weakness). An overhaul of the education system would embrace this vulnerability, replacing courses on narrative structures in 19th-century literature with ones on the tensions of marriage (de Botton notes that both courses could use Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as their key texts); the Department of History with the “Department of Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.” Education must not simply offer knowledge, but “engage directly with our most pressing personal and ethical dilemmas.” In what seems to be a genuinely insightful observation, it is suggested that “secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.”

Can I get an Amen?

De Botton does not limit his examination of education to purely academic matters. A sizable section of the chapter is dedicated to the idea of spiritual exercises and the renewal that they bring, mocking the closest secular equivalent to a spiritual retreat — a day spa. De Botton quips that “to answer our longing for calm, Western consumer society has over the last fifty years refined the concept of sunbathing; Buddhism has taken over a thousand years to perfect the art of meditation.” The world rarely gives us the time or space to spend time in quiet reflection, away from the hubbub of the world around us — recognizing that what is necessary and beneficial to our well-being smacks of weakness, in the eyes of the world.

While Christianity, and indeed any faith community, should be encouraged by the affirmation de Botton gives to some of its practices, it should also be wary of holding those practices too close. We should be excited, not anxious, that someone who professes no religious faith is so interested in the rituals and perspectives that mark our lives. We should celebrate it, not chastise it. Yes, we should hold our ground and speak out against the (often rude and offensive) dismissals of the supernatural side of our faith, but I am challenged by de Botton’s own challenge to his fellow atheists:

“We should not let atheism get in the way of appreciating traditions that are part of a shared non-denominational heritage that was historically stamped out by secularists from a misunderstanding of the real identities of those who had once created it.”

On tenderness, he suggests that the dominant wisdom of the world — that dependence is weakness —  is held too tight by many, and that the parent-child dichotomy found in religion (particularly in the Catholic Church) affirms the longings we have, “recasts vulnerability as a virtue and thus corrects our habitual tendency to believe in a conclusive division between adult and childhood selves.”

On pessimism, de Botton suggests that while not unhopeful, Christianity is inherently pessimistic about this world —  stating that Christianity “merely has the good sense to locate its expectations firmly in the next life, in the moral and material perfection of a world far beyond this one.” A theological dissection of this belief would be something of a tangent, so I would only say that there are plenty of Christians who believe that it is in fact our obligation to work to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now —  eternal life is not the only motivation for our faith.

However, whilst some Christians wouldn’t employ the word “pessimistic” to characterize their faith, there is certainly some truth in the paradigm that de Botton creates between the “religious pessimist” and the “secular optimist” who, he contends,

“With their well-developed sense of entitlement, generally fail to savour any epiphanies of everyday life as they busy themselves with the construction of earthly paradise.”

There’s something very much of the “upside down kingdom,” something I wonder if de Botton is aware of? In acknowledging weakness, Christians and other people of faith are far more able to “be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizons.”

Out of weakness, strength. Darkness, light. Despair, hope.

Sections on “Perspective,” “Art”, and “Architecture” offer some interesting insights about the strengths of religion and the failures of atheism to reimagine aspects of religion that are unpalatable to them —  but fail to offer too much that would be considered ground-breaking, as previous chapters successfully did. De Botton continually reasserts that in reclaiming the best tenets of religion, the world would go some way to righting the psychological traumas that the modern world has burdened us with – a psychotherapeutic travel center being the one of the more intriguing suggestions (reimagining the pilgrimage sites of medieval times). These chapters are still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

It is rare that a book would appeal both to people of faith and hardened atheists, but Religion for Atheists majestically bridges that gap. At various points in this book, I spent time in genuine contemplation that de Botton himself must be a person of faith, his articulation of the central tenets of the Christian faith are so full of truth.

There have been, and will continue to be complaints from both sides, but at the heart of this book is a wise and engaging message that will challenge those at both extremes of this spectrum to engage with the other and build a community that reflects our common humanity, even if it’s a step too far (at present) to acknowledge God at the center of that community.

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.

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