A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion
by Alain de Botton
Despite repeatedly coming across his books, until now I haven’t ready any of de Botton’s work. This is probably because I wasn’t really interested in whether or not reading Proust could change my life or what a public intellectual thought of the pleasures and sorrows of work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I figured he was probably something of a snot, and didn’t care to read about his snobbishness at book-length.
This book didn’t disabuse me of my judgmental notions, but the central idea was interesting enough to pick it up anyway. Picking up the conversation after the place where it either grinds to a halt or degenerates into shouting (is religion true or not?), de Botton posits that:
it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and to be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.
If nothing but for the thought exercise, I was interested in his premise. Religions are, after all, enormously successful organizations across geography and time. I suspect de Botton probably irritates nearly as many atheists (with his insistence on secular nourishment for one’s soul) as he does believers (with his repeated use of the word supernatural and his casually dismissive tone). It is hard to imagine the deeply committed on either side of the issue actually reading three hundred pages of discussion as to how religion without gods can save us.
I think de Botton enjoys being provocative, and he is good at it. Some of his proposals make sense (thematic arrangements of museum collections vs medium or art historical periods) and others surely must be made tongue planted firmly in cheek (the college lecture format may deserve the boot, but replacing it with the fiery sermons seems equally ridiculous).
While de Botton does not subscribe to any theistic belief system, he does yearn for community support of the spiritual sort. Apparently, according to de Botton, most atheists go wrong by being too short-sited:
“So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.”
As a thought exercise, the book held my attention through all ten topics de Botton examines: wisdom, community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions. The book also reminds readers that religions don’t have a monopoly on truth, or the only point of view on ethics or morality and atheists aren’t the only folks who engage in critical thinking and problem-solving.
As far as advice goes, well, I didn’t find any particularly compelling stuff here. It isn’t that I reject the notion that I need encouragement, support, or guidance, it’s that I’ve already put into action more direct, pragmatic advice than found here: take what you need and leave the rest.