Religion For Atheists – Alain de Botton
After all the negative press I’d heard about the latest book by Alain de Botton, I was less than eager to read it. Sure it was about atheism and religion, so in theory it should be right up my alley, but the reviews I’d heard from people, combined with de Botton’s TED talk, “Atheism 2.0”, and the apparent reports that he intended to build a “Temple to atheism”, had me wondering if this book was worth reading at all. I have read work of his in the past; “The Art Of Travel” and “The Architecture of Happiness”, and his writing always left me with a feeling of melancholy and yearning that I found discomforting. Sometimes he even bordered into the downright negative and overly analytical. Not exactly my idea of a feel-good story to say the least. But, like jumping on a hand grenade to save the minds of my fellow atheists, I decided it was my job, nay my duty, to at least listen to the audiobook of his latest published work “Religion for Atheists”. This is what I took away from it.
The book itself is a lamentation for the things that, in de Botton’s view, make religious ceremonies, trappings, architecture and art superior to the lives we lead today. According to de Botton, secular life has a huge hole in it, one occupied by our “soul” that needs to be fed and nurtured. Secular life does not, and cannot, in its current state, offer the “soul food” that religion offers; so maybe we should be taking parts of religion, the parts that de Botton identifies as irreplaceable in secularism, and use them for the greater good of humanity.
In and of itself this sounds like a good idea. I mean, who cares where the good ideas in humanity come from. If they work, we should use them, right? But for de Botton, many of the things he identifies as lacking in secular life are actually the things that we hold dear about secular life.
For example, his identification of art museums as museums to the past, where in his mind the art should be organised by “feeling” or “emotion” so that we walk away with a sense of understanding of life greater than what we can glean from history, while an interesting idea, is more of a pipe-dream than one of any constructive merit; if one knows just a little about art and history, a person can learn with much greater clarity the histories of other humans. And besides, we already have this. One look around the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas, and we see precisely what he is talking about; large canvases of dark colour with no figurative depictions in them, and seats in the middle where silent contemplation can take place. While this “Chapel” is more of an experiment in space, and is designed to be whatever the viewer wants it to be, it is a secular space, for it imposes no religion on the viewer; it simply is. It is devoid of messaging, and is somewhat of a “blank canvas” for people to enjoy in their own ways. Which is great for a church, but not so great when looking at art; one could call Rothko’s work in this instance boring, too plain or pointless in the context of art on a greater scale. We could put art in spaces of private worship, and we could order it according to emotions and feelings, but then we miss the broader picture; we miss the vast and deep history of art in mankind, while of course the intention of art museums is to teach us just that.
For me at least, with a history in the fine arts, art museums are places of learning and reflection, where we can wonder at not only at the skills involved in producing the works themselves, but also the emotions conveyed, the histories of the times and the lives of the artists involved. Art, like history, is a depiction of the social temperature of the time it is produced, and only a little digging (perhaps reading the plaque next to the work) will give the art greater context than simply a painting on a wall or a bronze sculpture in a room.
He also claims that art museums now, as opposed to the religious art of the past, has no message to convey; people can’t take away any life lessons, or glean any answers to difficult questions from the secular art establishments we have today. Well, maybe he’s right; modern art is about the self, and post-post-modernity seems to be reinforcing that fact. But is it possible that maybe he’s looking in the wrong place for answers about how to deal with cancer, or death of a loved one, or financial ruin? If, as he claims, art’s role is to instruct us with life lessons, and that life throughout the ages delivered the same kinds of problems now as it did in the 15th century, isn’t it possible that there is something to be gained from looking at the art from the 15th century which addresses these problems? And maybe that is his point, we don’t do that anymore. But do we need to?
His book goes through similar dismantlement of architecture, literature, and education, claiming that what they have to offer today gives nothing for the viewer, reader or learner to take away to lead a better life. He claims today’s landscape is one where people come second to corporations (which is true to a point), that what we learn from literature is forgotten too quickly and not reinforced in us on calendar dates, and that education only gives us the facts and not suggestions on how to lead a better life. Again, he may have a point here, but I think he misses the obvious fact; we are much more complicated in our modern lives than were our dark-ages counterparts, and the structures of our societies point us in a different direction. The learning about life must be taught early in life, taught alongside the basic learnings of the alphabet, the numbers, the colours. It must not be prescribed to us, but should be taught as a way to make decisions which will have the best outcome for all involved, without causing undue harm.
The biggest thing that irks me about the “philosophical” writings of de Botton is his perspective. He has managed to correctly identify the idea of feeling small in the universe as a way to humble us and make our lives seem more miraculous than religion can suggest. However, as an extremely rich man, one who was born into money and has traveled extensively, he seems to be extremely blinkered to the fact that the real problems in the world are not crises faced by the individual, but the larger scale crises of climate change, rising sea-levels, poverty, disease and civil wars. It is true that people are the cogs in the machine that make up societies, but we are kiddin ourselves if we think reshuffling an art museum, or having an international day of reading James Joyce is going to make lives richer for anyone but the upper and middle-class peoples of the world. The fact is that nearly a billion people on earth have less than the minimum required level of literacy.
It is true that religions have held the steering wheel morality and ethics, and offered suggestions on how to deal with hardships we all inevitably face. de Botton says that this role in society has not been replaced by anything, and that we walk our lives without any guidance or insights from the wisdoms of the past. My problem here is one that troubles me in many walks of life, where people cite tradition and habit as a way to justify the way we do things now. It is actually the converse situation to the idea that de Botton says he is suggesting, taking the good things from religion and using them in a secular space. In fact it seems that de Botton has a yearning for the rites and practices of religion that he can’t seem to identify in today’s society, and is suggesting that we take these “successful” past practices and inject these into our modern lives. I say we need concentrate on getting all of humanity back on track, and no amount of navel gazing and self contemplation can bring this about.
I really think de Botton wrote this book as a way to try to bring all of his previous ponderings into line with his inability to believe in, not only god, but humanity itself. It seems to me that he is upset at the world, and wishes he could believe in god in order to make his life better. He walks in the middle of the road, applauding religion and religionists for their piety and belief, and yet tells us that in essence they are all deluded to believe in god. His audience then grows, from just the 16% of the world’s population who are non-believers, to everyone who likes to dabble in pseudo-philosophical banter. While it is filled with anecdotes and examples, and there is no denying that he is a knowledgeable and intelligent man, what he comes up with at the end is not in fact about “Religion for Atheists”, but a spewing out of the justifications for the religious standpoint, and actually a glorification of the role religion plays in day-to-day life. Rather than focusing on religion as a starting-point and working our way from there, I think he would have been better to look at all the positive things humanity has produced historically, religious or not, and made a thesis of how we could bring those together to better ourselves and the world. But then his audience is diminished, and he wouldn’t sell as many books.
The biggest flaw in de Botton’s thesis is actually the first thing he writes in the book, the title. “Religion for Atheists” is not, as it claims, “A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion”, but actually a sad lamentation on de Botton’s own frailties and insecurities about the richness of his own life, and the fact that he doesn’t believe in God, but wishes he could. While it’s not a terrible read, and one that at least got my mind going, even if it was only to counter his standpoints, it was not by any means groundbreaking. I would recommend you read this only if you want to know what’s in the book, not if you are expecting to find some suggestions for how to better your own life.