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?