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Alain de Botton's pastoral atheism


Alain de Botton, Religion for AtheistsIf the provocative title of Alain de Botton's book Religion for Atheists does not annoy believers and non-believers alike, then its first line probably will: 'The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.'

And if any sanguine readers out there remain unmoved, the book's central thesis should rile even them. De Botton says religions are not true, and God does not exist. Yet atheists should not dismiss religions on these grounds. The rituals, modes of thinking, methodologies, and approaches to life that religions promote can still be of great assistance to atheists.

For instance, de Botton argues that atheists could learn how to foster a sense of community from the Catholic Mass. The Jewish Day of Atonement could help atheists build better interpersonal relationships. Zen Buddhist retreats could assist atheists to reflect on the direction of their lives.

(As this representative sample suggests, the book could probably have been more precisely titled Catholicism, Judaism and Zen Buddhism for Atheists.)

One chapter commends religious places of worship and the feelings they can induce in us. De Botton suggests building a secular 'Temple to Perspective' — a place where humans can put their troubles into perspective by reflecting on the 460 million years Earth has existed for.

With typical zeal, de Botton has already put this suggestion into action, raising almost half of the million pounds required to actually build this temple in London.

The proposal has angered fellow atheists. Richard Dawkins has condemned the plan, declaring that 'atheists don't need temples', and that the money would be better spent on promoting 'rational, critical thinking'. The Guardian's Steve Rose protests that the Temple of Perspective is insufficiently atheist, and so 'a Christian or Muslim' might also be able to enjoy it.

These criticisms demonstrate the gap between de Botton and other atheists. Dawkins and Rose's outlook is missionary, while de Botton's is pastoral. Dawkins and his ilk want to save souls from religion, and promote the good news of atheism. De Botton is more concerned with the spiritual needs of the existing flock.

Many atheists argue that religious people are childish, irrational, needy, and vulnerable, and that atheism is about turning away from all those things, and embracing a rational, 'grown-up' existence. That argument is implicit in Dawkins' dismissive 'atheists don't need temples'.

While de Botton agrees atheism is the rational choice, he argues that those who make that choice do not suddenly cease to be irrational and childish. It is not religious people who are childish and vulnerable, but human beings. The wisdom of religion is to recognise our inherent vulnerability, and cater to that aspect of our being.

It is evident why atheists might be angered by de Botton's ideas. But what should theists make of this book?

It will offend theists who believe the only reason to practise religious rituals is simply to adhere to God's edicts. For such theists, God's reasons for prescribing particular rituals are irrelevant and inscrutable. To put it bluntly, God might as well have commanded us to do the hokey-pokey, and these theists would perform it with as much zeal as they might attend a Catholic Mass.

These believers will regard de Botton's use of elements of religious rituals outside of a theistic context as absurd and blasphemous.

Other theists, such as myself, instead see religious rituals and practices as a means of guiding and enabling a life lived in accordance with the beliefs and values of a particular faith. Religion for Atheists can help this type of believer gain a new appreciation for the utility of religious rituals.

De Botton eloquently demonstrates just how helpful religious practices are, even when the theistic content is substituted for lessons about 'perspective' or 'community'. Believers can see that when the more profound teachings of religions are re-inserted into the rituals, those rituals are powerful tools indeed for assisting us to live our lives in a way that is attuned to theistic values and beliefs.

While de Botton's individual ideas and arguments are at times open to fundamental criticisms, his general perspective is a valuable one. His book can help theists articulate the importance of religious practices in a world that is, even among believers, increasingly sceptical of organised religion.

But at the same time, it can also assist believers to fearlessly adapt and improve aspects of traditional religion where that is required. In a new epoch that requires religions to be introspective if they wish to remain strong, this can only be a good thing. 

Patrick McCabePatrick McCabe works at an Adelaide law firm while completing a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. He is a former contributor to the Adelaide University magazine On Dit. Patrick won Eureka Street's 2011 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers with this essay. 

Topic tags: Patrick McCabe, Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, Richard Dawkins



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Existing comments

I watched him interviewed on television and concluded that only good can come out of this book.

Patricia Taylor | 22 February 2012  

Thought provoking and a challenge to both theists and atheists alike, which comprises most or all of society. Challenge makes us either grow or retract into a shell. We all need to grow, so challenge should be embraced. If his book challenges and assists us in understanding the truth of our existence then this is always good.

John Whitehead | 22 February 2012  

Thank you, Patrick, for this measured appraisal of the latest conversation from Alain de Botton. This book is one of the sanest informed presentations on the value of religion yet to come from a self-confessed non-believer. There should be more of it. De Botton has noticed that religion is one of the most extraordinary efforts to come to terms with being human. This is perfectly obvious to most people who call themselves religious, but doesn’t seem to be so obvious to many atheists, especially those of the more belligerent kind. Religion itself is the most amazing product of time and human belief in wisdom. De Botton is thoughtful enough to see you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. It is refreshing to hear someone in this debate who actually debates, rather than just sending sprays at all and sundry, and not waiting for a reply. A clue to this book is what I see as De Botton’s main philosophical cause, which is finding answers to what is the Good Life. De Botton is a kind of epicurian, not in the sense of someone who tries seven different cheeses just for the first course, but someone who asks what is the best way to live, and to live with others. Religious people (you know who you are) can let out an ironic sigh when they read that De Botton discovers the answer to the Good Life in religion.

PHILIP HARVEY | 22 February 2012  

As a committed and active atheist for half a century, I found this review very informative: it gave me a clear description of de Botton's "angle" and what some of his critics have made of it.Thank you, Patrick McCabe!

Nigel Sinnott | 22 February 2012  

From reading Patrick's article, I would presume De Botton would support government funding of community services run by churches (schools, hospitals, homeless hostels, rehab centres etc) not because of the God factor, but because of the intrinsic value of the service itself. I'm wondering however what value chaplains would be and how the different brands of proselytising might be exposed for the good/bad they do from De Botton's perspective.

AURELIUS | 22 February 2012  

I agree with Patricia. I was most impressed watching his interview on TV last night. I think God might have been smiling too.

Pam | 22 February 2012  

It is clear that de Botton has only observed, romantically, but actually never attempted to be part of a "community", such as a traditional Catholic parish, in which individuals happen to celebrate Mass in proximity to each other, mainly because they are obliged to. The Catholic Mass, in my substantial experience, is rather like a whole lot of toddlers playing intently beside each other, not necessarily with each other, acknowledging each others' presence merely incidentally or at the instigation of the teacher. The mindset of a Catholic parish (community) is more one of if you're not with us you're against us - there are too many religiously prescribed excuses for excluding and shunning, to some degree, those deemed to have transgressed particular, peculiar narrow values. It is, more often than not, unthinkingly tribal and reactionary - consciously and proudly separate from the society and wider community in which it sits. Whether atheist or theist, motivation for being "a good person" should be that it is the right way to conduct yourself, without the "reward of heaven or the threat of hell" mentality which ultimately underpins religious thought. de Botton is correct in advocating a knowledge of religious thought and practise however - being forewarned means being forearmed. Luckily, reviews such as this one, and his title alone should save lots of us from shelling out for this simplistic rehash.

Michelle Goldsmith | 22 February 2012  

What an informative observation from a pastoral atheist that "atheists could learn to foster a sense of community from the Catholic Mass". And this coming at a time when Catholic community is in disarray as clearly indicated by the results of the survey finalised in July, 2009 by the Pastoral Projects Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. This survey titled "Catholics who have stopped attending Mass' indicated that 83% of respondents stated that the Mass was irrelevant. Further, the survey indicated that over half of the respondents (all of whom were in the post Vatican II educational age group)did not know or did not understand fundamental Catholic teaching). It takes an atheist author with a pastoral vision to tell the Catholic Church why it is losing community while the remnants of that community still wait in hope that the Australian bishops will act on the results of the survey which they commissioned, particularly in the areas of school and adult education.

john frawley | 22 February 2012  

To Michelle Goldsmith; as a very long-term lapserian Catholic myself can I recommend a visit to New Orleans and attendance at Mass at St Peter Claver's in Treme, a wonderful and fully involving community celebration. Didn't send me back to my local parish on my return but did make me realise that the Mass can be a powerful community force.
I don't know if De Botton's idea of a 'temple for atheists' is worthwhile, isn't that what the Freemasons were on about?

chris g | 22 February 2012  

I beg to differ. This book must be one of the worst and most shallow books ever written about the topic of religion, atheism, and human culture.

Frederick | 22 February 2012  

Thank you Patrick (no relation!). A well balanced review of a provocative title. You have found the tricky path between the the sublime and the "gor-blimey". As a theist, I am encouraged to reflect more deeply on the purpose and meaning of my life. It seems a pity that the battle for hearts and minds seems endless. A great article.

Dave | 22 February 2012  

As a minister of religion I have met lots of people who have said that they would love to belong to a community like church communities where they could gather with people and explore meaning but they don't believe in God. The church seems to make 'belief' the condition for belonging. I think that space can be created where atheists and theists can come together to explore meaning, celebrate life and work together to make a better world.

Trevor Jennings | 22 February 2012  

While acknowledging that this book contains assertions likely to offend "true believers" of both camps, I found it a useful humane corrective to both their excessive tendencies.

Who can confidently assert that our present society would not benefit from trying the affirmative suggestions he writes about. To my (atheist) mind he has ably summarized the choicest parts of religious practice. Recommended if only to expand one's awareness of the common human ground between believers & non-believers

Benign Atheist | 22 February 2012  

I think Jesus would be happy with De Botton's approach and see it as a way for non-believers to be touched by the light of the truth without having to be ear-bashed and condemned by the fundamentalist denominations and also the churches with an "opposition party" identity and get their identity from degrading the beliefs of other Christian churches.

AURELIUS | 23 February 2012  

I only hope he is planning a sequel Atheism for Believers. I cannot believe that an atheist has come out with this tripe. Religion does so much to shore up power over women throughout the world and ongoing misery for gays he would be better talking about if we have religion how it needs to move on to fit the 21st century.

Sarah Taylor | 23 February 2012  

That's seriously the first line? So figuring out what is true is "boring" and "unproductive"? What a copout. If life is not ultimately about finding truth, and orienting yourself towards reality, what is it about? de Botton's approach is certainly kinder than Dawkins' and leaves more room for actual dialogue instead of one-sided rants. I appreciate that. But he's trying to have the icing without the cake that actually holds it up. As an unlapsed Catholic, I don't believe because it's nice or helpful or comforting or good for the community. I believe because it's true. CS Lewis said it best long ago - we weren't left with the choice of thinking this Jesus who lived 2000 years ago was a good bloke whose nice sayings can help us live nicely. He is Lord, liar or lunatic. The "nice" Jesus, like the "nice" religion emptied of belief, is a construct that simply doesn't reflect reality.

Meg | 23 February 2012  

A good review, Patrick! I look forward to reading this book. I am always interested in Alain De Botton's philosophical work, as well as other athiests such as Peter Singer. I believe that the moral and ethical philosophy of both theists and athiests is basically similar and the difference is that athiests like proof and theists can live with faith and hope. I am a practicing Catholic and the most significant benefit for me in being a practicing Catholic is the communal sharing of a way of life based on faith and hope in that way of life; this is my belief in God. I do not believe in God as some supernatural being who created the world. I do not accept all the teachings and policies of the Catholic Church, especially the anti-feminist, anti-gay and arificial contraception policies. I also believe that other Christian religions and all religions are as legitimate as Catholicism.

Mark Doyle | 23 February 2012  

It is unfortunate, though perhaps ineviable, that God is presented by most theistic groups as being "on our side" - which ever group it happens to be -. Almost all atheists are rejecting the concept of God that is presented by one or another of these theistic groups. We should all learn from the reply given by Abraham Lincoln during America's Civil War, when a woman assured him that "God is on 'our' side." He replied, "My concern is rather that we should be on God's side."

Robert Liddy | 24 February 2012  

For many years de Botton has been very good at dumbing down philosophy and now he's into Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies. Why doesn't he just convert to Zen and trying sitting on a black cushion for two hours. Alain is a born cherry picker and getting very rich in the process. A snake oil salesman if I ever saw one.

Roger Horton | 25 February 2012  

De Botton is one of my favourite authors but I very nearly passed up his latest offering due to the title. So glad I didn't! I'm not a religious person, not am I an atheist, but I enjoyed every moment of this book :)

Kate Roberts | 26 February 2012  

The word 'Religion' has 2 essentially distinct meanings. It can mean A, the Ideals put forward. Or it can mean B, the Organisation, made up of the people who 'belong' to that group. Unfortunately, there is often some confusion with the two, as different groups assume that they have the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. This is because their expression of the Ideals is tailored to their Culture and traditions, and though it represents only one of many paths up the Mountain of God, they think it is the only path Viewed objectively, all sincere people, including Atheists and Agnostics should see that their views represent only one aspect of Truth, and that the key components of all sincere beliefs can be reconciled. The main obstacle to this is the illusion that each believes their limited point of view is the only one, and they cannot let it go.

Robert Liddy | 28 February 2012  

Thank you for this insightful essay Patrick. Alain does demonstrate the value of religious practices which as you say is so valuable in a world that is so sceptical of religious practice.

Marilyn Hatton | 12 March 2012  

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