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Religion For Atheists

As a longtime fan of Botton’s work and his particular brand of pop philosophy (a category he more or less invented, in my view) as well as a fairly staunch atheist (more of an anti-theist, really) I couldn’t pass this book up.

Botton’s thesis in this work is that while there are many obvious reasons to reject a system of religious belief, such a decision also involves the rejection of many aspects of religion that may be truly useful in leading a happy, contented life. Each chapter touches on a different one of these religious institutions (e.g. Community, Kindness, Architecture, etc.) and then offers opinions on how we might bring these benefits into the secular world.

One issue I often have with Botton’s work is that he seems to be especially good at posing interesting, thought-provoking questions (the job of the philosopher, really), but isn’t necessarily so good with concrete solutions to those questions (to be fair, something few philosophers have ever managed). After a couple of chapters, I initially thought he was in particularly bad form and found his answers to range from silly at best to snarky and intentionally useless at worst.

Though his solutions did seem to improve over the course of the book, I found myself feeling somewhat let down in the end. While the idea of the work seemed so promising, the practical applications it offered seemed somewhat worthless. I even felt a little betrayed, really, or at least led-on since Botton didn’t seem to have a meaningful plan to put his ideas into practice.

However! In the last pages of the book, I came across the “About the Author” section in which I learned that Botton is the founder and chairman of an organization called The School of Life, a group which seeks to find practical and useful solutions to the very real philosophical difficulties of modern life. They offer everything from communal meals and couples counseling to something called bibliotherapy, in which counselors create a reading list to help with a person’s particular set of problems. It is, in many ways, the kind of secular institution that Botton espouses in Relgion for Atheists and my only complaint is that there is, as of yet, no branch of New York City.

What do you think? Is there a place for religious concepts and methodologies in the secular world?

9 comments to Religion For Atheists

  • nd876

    Yes, religious concepts are just ideas- “be a good person” doesn’t require a god.

    As a kid I was never taken to church, god was never mentioned, and Christmas was celebrated with Santa, goodwill, and no religious connection. I liked this- I even thought believing in god was a result of being gullible. But, I also hated it- I had no community, no bake sales, no choir, just me.

    Awhile back, my coworkers were making fun of a flyer promoting an “Atheists group” in the area. They were poking fun and saying “What is it they talk about–how much they don’t believe in god?” But there is so much to be said about life without relinquishing all of the credit to god. I think the website looks great, and I also wish there was a group here in NYC.

    Has anyone else been brought up without a religion? What effect did it have on you? Would anyone or has anyone changed their beliefs from what they were taught?

  • I think of the religious thought as a language to express the world and its phenomena, its mysteries, describe and catalogue human cultural and sutil experiences.

    Each religion has its own set of rules, each religion acts a different “function”, to use a processing comparative image…

    But the world phenomena, and life itself ARE prior to the religious experience. We can use aspects of religion to improve our understanding as much as we can use art, science, atheism… It is a matter of how you manage to READ life in a better language or not.

    However, religion seams to be the most sensitive, because it deals with personal existence matters from childhood. For many, those are the first sets of rules that organize their world. And taking that appart is to crush a person’s ground.

    If we learn how to respect others experiences, and understand that others set of ideas can be replaced for other kinds of experiences and explanations, as is this book intent, we are many steps closer to living a fulfilling multifaceted life.

  • Maria Paula

    In the book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim seeks the origin of religions in their simplest examples, such as the aboriginal tribes in Australia (considered by him the most primitive religion ever). According to him, religion is born from the moment we differentiate the sacred and the profane and that difference would be defined by cultural aspects. Therefore, religion is something primarily social.

    In Brazil, there is a great mix and blending of cultures. As result, we have syncretic religions that mix europeans, africans and native indians believes. In my case, and I guess it is very common there, I was born in a family in which religion is somehow a tradition but does not really influence everyday life. Basically, we are catholics that celebrate christmas but don’t go to church every sunday. And if we need any kind of religious relief, we can go to a umbanda center or whatever.

    Anyway, I have been hearing this audio course regarding the meaning of life and I am really enjoying the way the professor talks about religious texts in a secular context.

  • Patricia

    I don’t know Botton’s work, but it sound like he is posing an interesting solution to leading a happy life in our modern society- by trying to strip us from religious constraints and trying to unite us through more “human” means.

    My opinion on this matter is very subjective and particular to my own experience, because I was brought up in a very Catholic school, with very strict rules about religion, love and the world. In essence, Catholics believe you are born with Sin and therefore, your entire life should be dedicated to cleaning yourself from those sins, in order to go to Heaven in the afterlife. This method of thinking creates a very problematic view of the Self- resulting in feelings of guilt and low self esteem (why am I a sinner? Why can’t I every do anything right? type of thing..) and to me, that is not healthy.

    Thankfully, I was able to recognize those patterns and when I became a teenager, I couldn’t shake the feel ing that religion wasn’t allowing me to have freedom of choice, freedom of thought or healthy boundaries with myself and other people (wwjd mantra makes people always put others first, basically). Not surprisingly, I don’t currently identify with the Catholic Church (I only go to church when someone gets married and to keep tradition) but it really doesn’t mean anything to me.

    In my opinion, religion and spirituality are two different things. And I now consider myself a spiritual person- I strive to maintain a good relationship with myself by taking care of myself and being honest with myself and the world around me. I no longer feel like i HAVE to follow a certain religious Dogma in order to achieve an ultimate goal. Instead, I try to meditate and be kind, always. And that, at least in my experience, has proven to be a lot more rewarding. Life is so much better this way, I think.

    It sounds like The School of Life is trying to do something similar and I do believe people are thirsty for spiritual knowledge- be it about themselves or the mysticism of humanity. And there are many ways to get there that have nothing to do with religion. And I believe those ways- honesty, kindness, community, meditation, fearlessness, actually bring us closer on a deeper level of humanity. And nothing is more beautiful than that.

  • Talya Stein

    Answering Scotts question: Is there a place for religious concepts and methodologies in the secular world?

    Yes. There is place for everyones beliefs in the world. The problem begins not when one choses a life style or set of beliefs, but when one imposes their beliefs on the other. Those saying “what I believe is true and absolute, what you believe is wrong”.

    I was born in Israel, and have a traditional Jewish upbringing. My parents believe in god, and always told me it was up to me to decide what I believe in. Being Jewish is decided by being born to a jewish mother, and living in Israel really lets you be Jewish without practicing the religion. I practiced all the jewish holidays, but it was more about the family gathering then anything else.

    Israel is a place where your Judaism is taken for granted. You don’t need to prove you’re jewish, you already live in Israel. There is always a power struggle between the secular to the religious. It’s like they constantly try to impose their way of living on us.
    In the Israeli law there is no separation between religion and the country, which is one of the reasons to so many of our problems.

    The fundamentals of all the religions are to love one another and be good people, but somehow along the way it all got so distorted. How is it possible that the reason to war could be religion?

    I personally believe there is a “bigger power” out there, I just don’t think it has anything to do with religion. I believe religion has little to do with believing in god, it has much more to do with a power structure and control. How many times in history have a poor men given all they had to the religion of their faith? How can it possibly make sense to die for your god? To kill for your god?
    How can you believe that only god can give life and it’s in your right to take it in his name?

  • Nancy

    interesting discussion… maybe you should also look at the Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Can there be moral development without God?

  • Yuliya Parshina

    I was born into the last decade of USSR, and got to witness a very interesting transformation of an entire society. Under Communism, the Soviet Union was an officially atheist state. Though religion flowed like a secret cultural undercurrent in the backs of many minds, there were several generations of “true Communist believers” who really thought that the utopian ideals preached by the leaders during parades could come true.

    My mother’s parents were two such believers. My grandfather was a factory worker and my grandmother a school teacher. Throughout their youth and middle age, they were devoted Communists and atheists. The ideology they followed provided for them all the spiritual and social needs otherwise fulfilled by religion: community, kindness to others, working towards a greater good of humanity, equality, freedom, education, end of poverty, etc. The zeal and purity with which they devoted themselves to “the cause” was as powerful as one might find in a deeply religious community in the United States.

    But of course things changed. As Perestroika progressed (and they got older) my grandparents became more spiritually inclined. I was baptized in the early 80’s. By the time the Iron Curtain collapsed, my grandmother was waking up to pray at sunrise and reading the bible at night. She started going to church (an act that could be judged and punished as treason during the high times of Communism). My grandfather soon followed.

    While to an outsider this transition might seem extreme, the inner world of their morals has not changed. The values they held as devout Communists transitioned with them into Christianity in the most natural way. The name and the leader changed, but the vision of the world remained.

    My grandparents are by no means unique. Twenty years after the collapse of USSR, a great part of the population plunged into religion. The state embraced the church as a convenient tool to manipulate the masses. At the site where during the revolution a glorious cathedral was demolished and made into an outdoor swimming pool, a replacement cathedral was erected. Small, dying villages, where indoor plumbing has never been introduced and gas lines run above ground through flimsy pipes, old churches are being restored with gilded domes and priceless icons with government money.

    I will end this rant by bringing it back to Scott’s original question: “Is there a place for religious concepts and methodologies in the secular world?” What the above experience taught me is that religion, with it’s wort and best manifestations, is just an expression of something that is present in society anyway. Whether it’s God or Lenin, people tend to crave a philosophy to follow. Different cultures crave a different kind of philosophy in different amounts, but the craving persists in the majority of human beings. And like anything else, philosophy can be taken to a dark place with unfortunate consequences. Removing the concept of a deity and a congregation won’t make much of a difference.

  • Sanniti

    “aspects of religion that may be truly useful in leading a happy, contented life”..that’s a very good thought and I believe, most of us, in this modern era, actually live that way- we follow a religious thought without being truly religious. I was brought up in a very religious environment- something you can’t escape living in India. Since childhood, I was taught about everyday things with a very religious viewpoint. For example, I am committing a sin by: throwing away food, talking back to elders, touching my grandmother while she’s cooking prasaad(food offered to Gods), etc. I never questioned these “rules” I had to live by, but felt a bit humiliated sometimes. As I grew up, I began to think a lot about where do these practices come from. My curiosity surfaced from the fact that a lot of what Hinduism teaches has a very logical base. On top of that, Hindu scholars had made so many discoveries about the world and the beings in it, following religious thoughts, thousands of years before they were scientifically proved. Why would people with such high intellectual capabilities practice something so illogical? As I began to research on it, I realized that the religion has been designed to keep the human race from ‘running wild’. It acted like a curb for the human behaviour- the same things that we today, call laws. A way of life was designed with the Gods as the controlling factor. And all the laws were created in the settings of the past. eg., I’ve been always advised to not cut my nails at night. Really silly. But imagine the world hundreds of years back, with no electricity; only oil lamps for light during the night. It really won’t be a good idea to cut your nails (with some sharp metal tool, I guess) when you can hardly see them! There are a number of such other ‘rules’ that feel out of place in the modern setting. That’s why you’ll notice that the people have adapted the religion to change with the times. There’s no longer compulsion to follow your family profession/ no constraints on your food choice and a lot more.

    So, essentially, what remains now is a way of life that supports a good life, but in the current era. And I think most religions are following a similar pattern. It is only when people fail to adapt this way of life with the changing times, does a conflict arise.

  • Oscar

    I haven’t read Religion for Atheists, but I am somewhat familiar with Alain de Botton mainly due to having watched his Ted Talk a while back. I guess I consider myself to be an atheist, and after having re-watched Botton’s presentation I had mixed feelings about what he had to say. Again I’m basing this solely on his Ted Talk so I might be talking out of context. First off the main problem I have with his whole Atheism 2.0 schtick is that he assumes that atheism or secularism is somehow devoid of morality, that atheists are living in a lonely “spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.” I find this to be fallacy and it’s a common misconception, that issues of morality and values are incongruous with secular, atheist society. There is no doubt in my mind that religion played a significant role as a beacon of moral guidance through out most of recorded human history, and in forming our values but I would argue, that even without religion we would have eventually come to the same or similar moral conclusions. Or that similar institutions might have replaced religious functions at some point in time. Humans are social creatures, somewhere along our evolutionary journey from primate to Homo Sapiens Sapiens, our ancestors learned that cooperation with other individuals of the same species, for example helped to lessen the risk of being food for a predator. Those that didn’t most likely had a much harder time to survive and were therefore at greater risk of not passing along their genes. I think it’s completely rational to believe that morals and values are a result of natural selection or memetics. As humans evolved, skills and knowledge were handed down from individual to individual, generation to generation which eventually led to a collective understanding of questions of right and wrong which eventually manifested themselves as various religions of the world. My point is that humans came up with moral and ethical codes, not religion, religion was just the means to enforce these codes. Modern science in my opinion has done just as much or more to answer questions of morality by helping us refine our understanding of how the world we live in really works. For example we understand that using fear, physical violence and intimidation to raise a child is not a conducive environment to foster an emotionally stable and harmonious human being. This isn’t because a priest told us this was wrong but because psychologists through empirical evidence and years of research have come to the conclusion that traumatic occurrences in early childhood can leave lasting psychological scars. So is there place for religion in the secular world? Why not? We haven’t stopped teaching or referencing Norse, Greek or Roman mythology. Just because you don’t believe in a deity doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn or value in religion.