A Review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists

This is an article by James Croft. It appears in the May/June 2012 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.

Let me begin by confessing that I am predisposed to love Religion for Atheists. The project that Swiss popular philosopher Alain de Botton has embarked upon — to salvage practices from religions that might be valuable to the nonreligious — is close to the goals of the Humanist Community Project, where I work. Incidentally, confession is one example of, as de Botton puts it, the “institutional delivery of soul-related needs” that he admires, calling it a “reliable global service industry” dedicated to psychological wellness. He compares the practice of confession favorably to psychotherapy, which he sees as inconsistent and ramshackle against the precision and standardization of the confessional booth.

The example of confession is characteristic of de Botton’s approach in Religion for Atheists: throughout the book he identifies areas where he believes secular society fails to provide community or help people cope with challenges in their lives, and points to religious practices and institutions which nonreligious people might wish to appropriate to fill the gap. Indeed, de Botton’s approach to religion seems fueled by a profound disenchantment with modern secular society, which he views as impoverished by the loss of practices and modes of thought that religion colonized. “The challenge facing atheists,” de Botton claims, “is how to reverse the process of religious colonization: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.” Religion offers “well-structured advice on how to lead our lives,” which de Botton contends the secular world often fails to provide. The challenge for modern atheists is to offer such structure in a non-religious way.

If you accept the premise (more on this later), Religion for Atheists mostly rises to this challenge. De Botton examines ten areas in which valuable insights may be derived from religious practices, and gives numerous creative suggestions as to how the secular world might reclaim them. Noting how religions use food to bring strangers together in a structured way, he offers the “Agape Restaurant,” in which diners will be encouraged to meet new people and share aspects of their inner lives. He offers the idea that art and architecture might be used more consciously to express and foster certain values or to help us navigate life’s troubles (an idea that, while not new, is still valuable). He notices that religious values and even consumer products, harnessing the arts and music, are branded and promoted far more passionately and effectively than secular values, which raises powerful questions regarding how well humanists are spreading their ideas. He proposes that university lecturers might be trained to present their ideas as passionately and dramatically as Pentecostal preachers — a proposal that this graduate student (and veteran of countless dreary lectures) finds delightfully provocative (if somewhat absurd).

But what of the premise? Is secular society as lacking as de Botton claims, and are religions the best place to look for remedies? Probably not. The primary flaw of Religion for Atheists is a lack of balance: he praises religion’s benefits while overlooking many of its flaws, while under-valuing the potential of human beings and the achievements of secular society. For instance, much of de Botton’s argument rests on an excessively dim view of humankind in which adults are really just like children, moments away from indulging our worst selves. He emphasizes that because “we are all in the end rather infantile, incomplete, unfinished, easily tempted and sinful,” we therefore require institutions and rituals to keep us in line. This view of human nature sits uneasily with the humanist emphasis on the goodness, dignity, and capability of human beings, both individually and in groups, and undercuts somewhat his arguments about the value of culture as a corrective. After all, it is the very same “infantile” people who create the culture that de Botton hopes will save us.

Further, de Botton displays an equally pessimistic attitude toward the achievements of secular society. If psychotherapy is inconsistent and ramshackle, it is at least responsive to individual needs and respectful of the peculiar circumstances of life. The very uniformity and standardization de Botton praises in the confessional booth do promise a standard level of “spiritual service,” but also rely on dogmatically defined notions of sin that fail to reflect individual experience. Secular responses to human suffering may, therefore, be better than de Botton contends.

At the same time, religion’s penchant for offering “guidance” might be much worse than he allows. Decrying what he sees as a “libertarian obsession with freedom” that infects secular society, de Botton argues in favor of the guiding hand that religions tend to offer, without giving any consideration to the fact that, too often, that same guiding hand has become a ruling fist. Indeed, the book suffers from a failure to recognize any dangers at all that might accrue if secular society were to consciously attempt to draw on religious practices. An appreciation of the potential pitfalls of his attempt to reclaim and repurpose religious practices would have gone a long way toward forestalling some of the criticism the work has received from other atheists.

Though many of de Botton’s suggestions for secular appropriation of religious practices are charming, some are merely odd. A “Temple to Perspective” — in which seekers would marvel at the scale of the universe — is probably not the best way to spend millions of dollars. (Incidentally, de Botton, who is Swiss-born but was educated in the UK and still resides there, is an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.) Equally curious is his criticism of universities for failing to teach us “how to live.” The primary purpose of universities is to generate new knowledge and develop scholarly expertise, not to instruct young people on how to navigate life.

The strangest omission from the book, however, is the complete absence of any mention of humanism. Although he closes with a brief consideration of the secular Religion of Humanity developed by the positivist Auguste Comte, de Botton nowhere recognizes that there is a proud history of humanist attempts to build community, encourage kindness, and provide education (the Ethical Culture Society being perhaps the prime example). An analysis of these prior attempts to reclaim religious practices for humankind as a whole would have provided valuable historical perspective and a test case for the sort of communities he imagines might be possible.

These criticisms, however, do not prevent this beautifully written book from provoking a much-needed discussion of the tasks that lie beyond the rejection of God’s existence. We may not share de Botton’s vision of a more structured, guided nonreligious future, and we may reject his overly negative view of secular society, but we can appreciate that he is posing the question — the deeply humanist question — “What do community, education, kindness, and the structure of human life look like, after God?”

James Croft is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who works alongside the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. His website, TempleoftheFuture.net, promotes a passionate, activist, radical humanist vision for the twenty-first century.

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