A New Salvation: Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists

March 6, 2012 | 1 4 min read

cover Religion tends to bring out the crazy in people. From speaking in tongues and  suicide bombers to silent retreats and complicated dietary laws, the daily acts performed in the name of God are hard for the atheist to understand. Since faith is by definition irrational, discussions about religion can quickly veer into extremism, with no room for rational exchange. What Alain de Botton aims to do, however, in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, is not necessarily to bring about world peace through some sort of fanatic-atheist summit (though that is a worthwhile cause should anyone want to attempt it), nor is it to attempt to prove whether or not any religion is true. Rather, de Botton, an avowed atheist, takes a strictly utilitarian approach to religion in the book: “it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.” De Botton looks to why religions were invented — to foster a sense of belonging to a community and to deal with the harsh realities of life (illness, death, marriage, what have you) — and cherry picks rituals that can be adapted into secular life. The results are sometimes farfetched but nevertheless intriguing.

De Botton expects neither the religious nor the secular will be crazy about his proposals. Since one of de Botton’s own metaphors for this is that religions will protest about his approach that they “are not buffets from which choice elements can be selected on whim,” his idea for a kind of communal restaurant based partly on the original Christian mass (which used to be a meal, a la the Last Supper) and partly on the Jewish Sabbath meal is a ripe example of how de Botton sees the potential for borrowing from religion to make modern life less alienating. The contemporary restaurant, he notes, provides a perfect space in which strangers could share a meal and perhaps something more — some sense of community. Instead, the average restaurant merely reaffirms “tribal divisions:” “the focus is on the food and the decor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.” He suggests this concept of an Agape (from the Greek meaning love) restaurant would bring strangers together to share a meal and then share their deepest thoughts and feelings by asking each other questions from a Book of Agape. Examples of such dialogue starters include, “‘Whom can you not forgive?’” and “‘What do you fear?’” De Botton argues that though this would surely seem a strange exercise at first, gradually patrons would come to appreciate the authentic communication and opportunity to get to know people of other backgrounds and creeds. His wishes are utterly utopian: “The poor would eat with the rich, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive our satisfactions from our existing relationships would ease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing so-called elite circles.” Frankly, it is hard to imagine anyone volunteering to participate in such an activity, when it is difficult enough to maintain those relationships we are supposed to be deriving satisfactions from: our marriages-slash-romantic partnerships, our families, our friends are hard enough to spend time with without giving up precious free time to share our innermost thoughts with strangers. De Botton’s ideas might be good for the community, but are they actually reasonable to expect people to work into their lives?

A more tenable idea of de Botton’s is the substitution of culture or secular texts for religious ones — not that we should worship at the altar of great writers and artists, but that we can “draw on culture with the same spontaneity and rigor which the religious apply to their holy texts.” A main tenet of de Botton’s thinking is that we should allow ourselves (speaking as the atheistic we) to be transported by secular art and culture, to be moved by it as wholly as religious people are by the Bible or the Koran. Perhaps he goes too far in suggesting that “secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African American Pentecostal preachers,” suggesting a call-and-response format in lectures about Keats and Adam Smith that seems like he’s maybe seen a few too many movies about the American Civil Rights Movement. Point taken, however — nothing wrong with a bit of enthusiasm about Romantic poetry or capitalist theory or whatever happens to move you. Amen.

De Botton has many other interesting ideas about borrowing from religion — making museums more like churches, thinking about vacations as pilgrimages, trying to find ways to share our woes and joys outside the structure of traditional rites and rituals. It’s worth mentioning that de Botton is heavily involved in the School of Life, a center in London that helps people find meaning through unconventional means like bibliotherapy, where a person listens to your woes and suggests a reading list to console you. He seems to be on a mission to improve people’s lives by unorthodox means. Religion for Atheists has a few decent ideas mixed in with some outlandish ones, but the reader never doubts de Botton’s intentions are anything but pure. De Botton is staking out new territory in suggesting atheists might find some value in religion, and if his suggestions are more provocative than practical it is because he believes in the significance of his mission. It is a wholly sincere and serious book (and despite that stodgy description it’s lively as well), and for maintaining such a balance de Botton deserves some praise. It is not easy to keep your wits about you where religion is concerned.

writes for The Believer, The Rumpus, and the LA Review of Books. She blogs at deadcritics.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @RealLiveCritic.

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