Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: Building a Successful Case for Atheism 2.0?

How could you not want to read a book that is titled Religion for Atheists? The title appeals to both believers and non-believers, and phrased in web terms, it makes the perfect link bait. Although the term link bait often has a negative connotation, stemming from the practice of luring people into reading content using a provocative title, De Botton’s book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. In the end it is the content that determines whether the author will be accused of link baiting or will be praised for writing good content, or in this case, a book. But before I elaborate further on the content of Religion for Atheists, it is helpful to know a bit more about De Botton himself. Also using web terms, De Botton is a proponent of what he calls Atheism 2.0, a concept that he elaborates upon during one of his TED talks.

De Botton, who is himself an atheist and thus doesn’t believe in the existence of a supernatural being, distances himself from more radical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, often condescendingly labeled as militant atheists, by stating that there are many uses for religion in a secular society. De Botton wants to move on from the debate about the existence of god, a question which he regards as boring and dealt with, and instead discuss the ritualistic, communal and moral aspects of religion that can have a positive effect on mankind. With his book Religion for Atheists, De Botton sets out to do just that.

Covering topics like community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions, De Botton argues that secular societies tend to display gaps and shortcomings that can be filled when borrowing elements from religion. In both his book as well as during his talk for TED, De Botton explains how education, tertiary education specifically, is supposed to make individuals nobler and better people, but fails to teach people how to live. According to De Botton, features like guidance, morality and consolation, learnings that were previously conveyed through religion, are absent in the cultural and intellectual knowledge transfer that takes place in higher education. This particular topic is one that De Botton followed up on himself by establishing The School of life in 2008, which titles its courses according to themes like careers, relationships, politics, travels and families.

Concerning art, De Botton criticises the concept of art for art’s sake, saying that art shouldn’t live in a bubble, but should instead be embedded and interact with our troubled world. According to De Botton, religion does a good job of placing art within our midst, and explaining to us what it is that we are seeing or feeling, unlike art in a secular society, where we are left to find the meaning in art ourselves. In addition, we should be less concerned with the era from which an artwork dates, the materials of which it is made and the technique that is used, but instead we should focus on the didactical message that can be found within the artwork. De Botton therefore proposes that museums should rearrange their collection according to themes like love, fear, compassion and suffering, and in his book even gives a schematic layout of what this would mean for London’s Tate Modern.

With regard to architecture, De Botton argues that buildings in the modern world have become hugely monotone and aesthetically unappealing, if not downright ugly. Unlike religious architecture, Protestant churches excepted, modern architecture is often times not concerned with beauty and bringing a material version of virtues into our structural landscape. Instead, matters of practically and cost-effectiveness reign supreme, with those buildings that are designed with aesthetics in mind lacking the capacity to facilitate quietness and self-reflection. De Botton’s proposal is to establish Temples to Reflection, in which individuals are given an opportunity for a moment of peace and solitude, as would be the case with religious buildings.

One of the strong points in De Botton’s reasoning is that he is apt at putting his finger on the sore spot: struggles that people experience with morality and living good lives, the apparent lack of virtues being transferred through education and culture, the frequently occurring inability of museum visitors to discover themes in artworks, the building of wrist-slitting depression monoliths to provide housing, and the lack of available places where individuals can take a time-out from modern day hectic existence. He is very right to voice his concerns over these issues. In addition, I admire De Botton’s ability to think out of the box and take the debate between believers and non-believers to the next level, while staking out a territory where he is vulnerable for attacks from both fundamental believers as well as radical atheists. I even would go as far as to say that the world’s religions should not be ignored when it comes to life’s lessons and age-old wisdoms, as long as these aren’t dogmatic.

Unfortunately, this is where I foresee difficulties, as dogma lies at the very core of religion. Fundamental believers, individuals that believe in a supernatural being that created the universe, accept this truth and other revelations without the need for evidence, while never doubting its authority, disputing its ground rules or diverging from its teachings. Enlightened believers will argue that many of the religious writings should be seen allegorically and are not to be taken literally, but how is one to distinguish between truths and allegorical writings, where’s the dividing line and who draws it?

Cherry picking religious writings happens on a massive scale, predominantly by believers themselves. Whether it concerns teachings too bizarre to relate to modern times, writings that call for violence against infidels, or religious viewpoints that clash with reigning contemporary values, they are either simply ignored or otherwise explained as being metaphorical. And yet, while believers never have problems ignoring specific teachings or segments of scripture, they will find legitimacy and truth in whatever teachings they are left with, however irrelevant, preposterous or offensive the disregarded texts and teachings happen to be. I fear that this aspect of religion will throw a spanner in the works of De Botton’s non-believers guide to the uses of religion: not only selected religious elements will gain legitimacy due to De Botton’s proposals, but so will holy scripture as a whole, religious beliefs in general, and ultimately the existence of a supernatural being.

The difficulty in isolating religious elements can also be seen in the way in which De Botton’s uses for religion in a modern society come across: instead of retaining a strong secular voice, his proposals become a combination of spiritualism and self-help elements that synthesise into something that most closely resembles New Age 2.0, not Atheism 2.0.

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