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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Dalillama

     There are so many problems with De Botton’s claims it’s hard to know where to start.  What “standardization” does he refer to in the case of confession?  It’s not as though there’s a universal standard in the Catholic Church that says a given ‘sin’ received a particular penance, that’s left to the individual priest.  Furthermore, the definitions of what is and isn’t a ‘sin’ are absurdly arbitrary, and the priest has zero training in actual human psychology.  While psycho therapy has certainly had a tendency towards the rough-and-ready in the past, it was part of a concerted effort to learn how the brain and the mind actually work, and has been making great progress in that field, aided by psychiatry and neurology, which, working together produce infinitely more reliable benefits for those suffering from mental illness than any amount of confession or prayer has ever managed.  While De Botton is correct in stating that religion gives strict rules for life, these rules are generally arbitrary, absurd, counterproductive, dysfunctional and completely incompatible with a high tech, science  oriented society as well as a just and prosperous one.  We can determine objectively that some codes of behavior do in fact make society safer or otherwise more functional and/or pleasant; things like “Don’t go around killing people.” etc,  but there’s no reason to include stupid obsessions about clothing, diet, sexual practices and whatnot along with those.  His contention that humans are inherently “infantile… and sinful”  is a sign that Christian ideology has a very deep grip on De Botton’s mind. He ignores the powerful infanitlizing  effect of religious paternalism, and accepts without question the frankly downright evil doctrine of original sin.  Such rubbish has no place at all in secular thinking, and is sufficient cause to disregard and ethical principles based even partially thereon.   As far as art not actively framing values etc, clearly De Botton has been encountering a very different selection of art than I have, as the books I read, music I listen to, etc. almost invariably has strong ethical themes in it; if he’s not seeing that in the things he reads, sees, or what not, perhaps he should expand his tastes a bit.  Furthermore, we already have places to go and contemplate the vastness of the universe, they’re called planetariums.  As for the fundamental question of the book “What do community, education, kindness, and the structure of human life look like, after God?”  education looks infinity better for being based on fact and reason rather than faith and authoritarianism, as god never had a valid place there to begin with, and the same goes for the structure of human life.  Kindness never had anything to do with god and won’t change, and community will continue on largely as before after a bit of minor restructuring that will happen organically.  This is not a particularly deep question, unless one is incapable of envisioning a non-authoritarian viewpoint.

    • ctcss

       You seem to have an entirely negative view of religious endeavor and an entirely positive view of secular society. That doesn’t sound like a very nuanced and balanced view to me. Perhaps you need a wider base of facts to consider and after doing so, you  might not be as strident in your tone.

      Just to point out an obvious problem with one of your statements “While psycho therapy has certainly had a tendency towards the rough-and-ready in the past, it was part of a concerted effort to learn how the brain and the mind actually work, and has been making great progress in that field, aided by psychiatry and neurology, which, working together produce infinitely more reliable benefits for those suffering from mental illness than any amount of confession or prayer has ever managed.”, you might want to read the following articles. (And there are lots more like them out there.)

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/07/20117313948379987.html

      http://www.aliveandwell.org/html/the_bigger_picture/the_dangers_of_zyprexa.html

      Basically, under ideal circumstances, the high ideals of any human endeavor ought to produce better living conditions for the people whose lives those endeavors touch. Sadly, because humans are often motivated by forces other than high ideals, not to mention that humans tend to be less than vigilant about everything that they engage in, the foxes often end up guarding the henhouses and even managed to get the farmers to make the access easier for them. And as nearly as I can tell, this has happened in both the secular and the religious spheres of life. (The above URLs illustrate problems with the secular side of things. And no, the problems described above have yet to be corrected.) Basically, the worst of any human situation is not much fun to bear witness to. And if one rejects the idea that humans are intrinsically bad, then that same demand to view humans engaged in humanist endeavors in a fair way also has to be applied to those humans who engage in religious endeavors as well.

      Guilt by class or association is never a just call. It is the wrong actions by individual people that are the things we all should be seeking redress for.

      (And no, I have never felt in awe sitting in a planetarium either.)

      • Dalillama

        You are correct that I have an entirely negative view of religious endeavor.  There is no benefit that cannot be attained without the religious aspects, and many flaws and harmful traits that are intrinsic to religious belief.  There are many possible models of secular societies, not all of which I view favorably, but given a defined set of outcomes, secular societies are far better at achieving them.  Regarding the bulk of your post, the state of American health care practice is sub par across the board, and more so in the mental health sphere.  In practice, it is not organized towards any particularly high ideals, although many individual practitioners certainly aim towards them. Despite this, even the U.S. mental health care system provides significantly better outcomes for sufferers of mental illness than confession or religion based “therapy.”  There are other health care systems which do far better, particularly in Scandinavia, and while they are far from perfect, no religion has even the smallest fraction of their success rate, or any success rate above the general background level of spontaneous remission.

        • DG

          Do you have any actual stats to back up those claims? Not
          all, just pick one. For instance, that the US mental health care system
          provides significantly better outcomes for sufferers of mental illness than
          confession or religion based therapy? First, confession is not therapy and is
          not treated as such. A priest may well recommend therapy based on the issues at
          hand, so those should not be compared. So leave it with the US mental health
          system vs. religious based therapy. Any stats or data to support that? Just
          curious, since the subject appears wildly broad and complex (for instance, would
          people of religious faith respond as well to an entirely secular approach to
          mental health, would a serious atheist appreciate religious based counseling?) –
          it seems to go beyond a simple ‘religious isn’t as good as not religious’
          description.

          • Dalillama

            Let me Google that for you

            I particularly recommend: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ccp/60/1/94/
            and
            http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1996-97899-019,
            but overall religious influenced therapy is at best equally as
            effective as  secular therapy, and then only insofar as the religious
            beliefs of the patient are influencing their pathology.  Thus, in a post religion world, religious therapies would have nothing to offer.   I also note
            that the only listings were for cognitive therapies relating to
            depression and anxiety disorders, and ignored completely the treatment
            of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and similar neurological conditions
            which are resistant to anything but drug therapy, which religion neither
            develops nor provides.  In the U.S. system as it stands, religious therapy is not counted separately, but mental health outcomes in general have been improving along with the science based therapies that are being developed. 
            On the subject of confession, if the purpose isn’t meant to be therapeutic, what is the alleged secular value that it might bring?

            • DG

              The
              studies are, of course, difficult to pin down. 
              It wasn’t really a fair charge on my part.  In truth, most in the counseling world don’t
              draw that thick of line between the two, and most understand that it has as
              much to do with what the patient in question brings with him or her to the treatment.  A person of no faith confronted with a
              zealous counselor of a religious tradition would do no better than a person of
              religious faith confronted with a zealous counselor with no religious
              affiliation.

              As for
              the other points.  First, there’s no real
              secular value from confession, unless a person simply had no one else to talk
              to and needed a listening ear.  The
              Church, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t claim otherwise.  It doesn’t pretend to have secular value, and
              that’s not a problem from a religious point of view. 

              With the
              question of medications, I’m not sure I follow you.  Neither do I get the point of therapy in a post-religious
              world or the use of medications vs. religious counseling.  Again, most don’t draw a thick line
              between the two, and I know religious counseling centers that employ psychiatric
              professionals, or at least are willing to recommend them as part of
              treatment.  So not sure where that was
              going.  Thanks for the links though.

              • greenspine

                If there’s no secular value to confession, then why is de Botton advocating for it in a secular system of values?

      • DG

        I, for one, have felt in awe sitting in a planetarium, though outside seeing the real thing with the family in the backyard is better, IMHO. Otherwise, well said. I’m often surprised that, despite the last century, so many folks still use the guilt by class argument; the idea that my side is the one with stars on its bellies and your side, sans belly stars, has nothing at all to offer. You’d think we would have learned our lesson, though if history has anything to say about it, I’m afraid we probably won’t.

        • ctcss

           Ain’t it the truth.

          I do like planetariums, but the outside night sky in an area with high visibility and low incident light is incredible. Somehow  I never felt the same way in a planetarium and since I could see the room beforehand, I never could quite forget that I was in a relatively small place.

        • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

          Planetariums are definitely my top spot for universe-pondering, but libraries are a close second. I could spend hours in a library, skimming the various sections, perusing entire books on anything from religion to history to web development to erotic poetry to criminal law. It is truly an awe-inspiring place. No secular “church”-like building could ever take their places.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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.

    I grew up Catholic. I always considered the concept of confession to be creepy. Does it occur to you that anyone gullible enough to confess serious sins was setting themselves up for blackmail by corrupt clergy?

    • ctcss

       And why, pray tell, wouldn’t they also be setting themselves up for blackmail by a corrupt doctor when they unburden their deepest, darkest secrets to a psychiatrist? (And please don’t tell me you think that humans of any stripe are exempt from the problem of bad behavior towards their fellow humans.)

      • http://therovingrockhound.myopenid.com/ Rovin’ Rockhound

         Well, for starters, because the psychiatrists livelihood is at stake. You have the law on your side if they violate confidentiality and can get their license revoked. Plus they have years of training and supervision to make sure that they are at least moderately competent and ethical.

        Priests? Not so much. They can even rape little boys and little happens.

        • DG

          First, priests also have training, and most established traditions
          (not just Catholic) require significant counseling training (the Hollywood distinction
          between trained mental health professionals and untrained clergy only works
          with certain denominational traditions). 
          Second.  A confession is done
          anonymously.  It doesn’t have to be, an individual
          can opt to speak face to face, but as often as not it’s anonymous.  Third. 
          If the priest is informed of the individual’s identity, it is instant defrocking
          if the priest breaks sacredness of the confessional.  And fourth – and most important – entire
          support networks exist in order to help those who have been victims of abuse or
          other malicious practices at the hands of mental health professionals
          including, but not limited to, psychiatrists. Does that guarantee you’re always
          safe talking to a priest?  No.  The point is, there is no guarantee in any case. Just
          saying.

      • Reginald Selkirk

         I have never told anything to a psychiatrist, so you’ll have to construct your strawman without me.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      Definitely creepy, and Catholics are shamed and guilted into believing that they must confess their sins to a priest. If they do not, they are taught that their “soul” will be in peril. It’s quite a different dynamic than the one involved in confessing to a friend, family member, or medical professional. The priest stands in for a deity who is (supposedly) judging the wrongdoer for his or her misdeeds, with potential eternal consequences.

      • Kris

        Yes, in particular the shamed and guilted bit. It always felt a little off to me – the premise was flawed. I realized fairly young that it mostly didn’t matter; if I was genuinely sorry, then God would know. If I wasn’t, I couldn’t confess to it because I’d be doubling the sin value by lying about being sorry!

        So I actually kind of made stuff up to confess. I lied as easily as any kid of fewer-than-double-digit-age, so I figured it was safe to “confess” to a couple of lies every time because I was sure I had done so, and thought I was likely sorry for some of them. I was also pretty outspoken, so I could always ‘fess up to a little sassing my parents – I was certainly sorry for the ones that prompted my father to swat me on the ass for being a “smart mouth” (which sounds like a good thing to be, but isn’t).

        Eventually I decided that it was dumb and quit doing it all together. I attended a Catholic elementary school, so I would sometimes go into the church during recess and talk to God. I figured that was good enough, and I would mention it at dinner in an off-handed way, sort of implying without actually saying so, that I’d gone to confession. As long as I didn’t actively speak a falsehood, I figured I was safe. See how dangerous that thinking gets? I actually became quite the good little manipulator to avoid admitting that I was starting to think that perhaps it was, ahem, sorta, well, baloney.

        Then I found a book in the school library on Greek mythology and I leapt in with delight. I also noticed that these “stories” seemed to have a lot in common with my religion, but that’s a whole ‘nother story…

        • DG

          Heh, seems as we followed the same basic path but in different directions. As an agnostic, I loved mythology and folklore.  Strangely, it was the similarities between various stories (as well, of course, as the differences) that got me to thinking.  Eventually, because of a host of observations and experiences, I moved toward theism, and then to full blown Protestant/Evangelical Christianity.  Years later, I came into the Catholic Church, interest in the sacramental view of reality being high on the interest list.  I always find it facinating how folks see things, even the same things, and end up following radically different paths.  Such, I guess, is the fun of human nature.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I generally believe that religion provides nothing of value… because I define this in the sense of religion uniquely providing something of value. While not every aspect of religion is inherently harmful, I don’t know of any positive value of religion that isn’t available (and often better) in a completely secular environment. So identifying so-called positive values just strikes me as a form of apologetics- and, as noted, is usually accompanied by a rather obvious avoidance of those aspects that actually are harmful.

    • ctcss

       Then it sounds like the only fair way to judge the positive and negative aspects of either the religious sphere or the secular sphere is to examine both spheres in great detail. All too often the non-believing side seems to just revel in strictly negative examples of the religious side of things. At least de Bottons is trying to address this imbalance. More effort obviously needs to be done, but at least it is a start.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        As a rationalist, I’m all for studying things in as much detail as possible. But it’s difficult to directly compare secular and non-secular spheres, because there is so much that is apples and oranges.

        To me, the interesting question is this: if we were to magically eliminate religion- religious belief and religious institutions- would we lose anything of value? By that I mean would we lose anything that either doesn’t already exist in the secular world, or isn’t trivially replaceable in the secular world? I haven’t been able to think of anything, but perhaps somebody else can.

        • ctcss

           “To me, the interesting question is this: if we were to magically eliminate religion- religious belief and religious institutions- would we lose anything of value? By that I mean would we lose anything that either doesn’t already exist in the secular world, or isn’t trivially replaceable in the secular world?”

          That sounds a reasonable statement to make, but the problem with such a view is that it tends to gloss over too many troublesome details, thus the need for much more detailed and unbiased study of the different spheres in order to gain a more comprehensive view of the needs of human individuals. Humans are complicated creatures and the idea that anything that is missing in the secular world (desired by a religious person) would be trivial to replace is rather naive IMO. In addition, a secular provision that may already exist to address a need may only address that need in a superficial or general way rather than in a specific or comprehensive way

          Politicians often make such an assumption when trying to eliminate someone else’s favorite (and often needed) provision in the law. This assumption assumes the triviality of the problematic area when all it actually is is the trivialization of the persons who feel that they very much need that provision. Communist governments pretty much thought they had the “helpful” governing of human populations down when, in many ways, all they were doing was ignoring the needs of the people they were governing and forcing something “helpful” on them.

          As someone who finds it desirable to believe in (what I believe to be) God and who wants to understand more about (what I believe to be) God, I have yet to see anything offered by secular society that would address my particular needs. (I am quite certain that there are many such things that secular thought might wish to have me use instead, but offering or forcing something on someone is not the same thing as that person desiring it, choosing it, and wanting to use it themselves.)

          For example, I see many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples around me in the Washington D.C. area but I only see one rather small Human Ethical Society. (There may be a few more such organizations, but I am quite certain there are not many.) Please note that I am not claiming anything against them as a group, nor am I lauding all of the religious groups around them, but I don’t see the HES as meeting a huge need even though it has a lot of the same trappings of the religious groups it is obviously trying to offer an alternative to. And if such a group does not meet the spiritual needs of the greater population (including me), then any lesser organization (say, a nature club or some other some other sort of club, even a charitable one) is also not likely to fulfill the spiritual needs of the people in all of those other religious groups.

          Basically, to say that the secular world can (with very trivial effort) offer something that takes the place of religion in a person’s life (someone who actually chooses religion, that is), is simply trivializing or belittling that person rather than offering something useful to that person that they will recognize and embrace on their own.

          • Lucilius

            “I see many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples around me in the Washington D.C. area but I only see one rather small Human Ethical Society.”

            Nearly 2,000 years ago, you may have had an ancestor who just as dismissively pointed out the many grand temples to Jupiter in Rome, contrasting them to the humble private houses in which a few Christians met.

            Come back in a couple millennia and we’ll see which buildings are no more than curious ruins.

          • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Al Denelsbeck

            For example, I see many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples
            around me in the Washington D.C. area but I only see one rather small
            Human Ethical Society.

            Yeah, well, there’s this thing. I’m not alone in this I suspect, but I can judge ethics with this simple exercise where I imagine how I would feel if it happened to me. I understand this is called “empathy” by some. Anyway, there’s a significant amount of evidence that it wasn’t even taught to me, but that I was born with it, the same as quite a few other animal species. Much more evidence, in fact, than any religion has offered, ever.

            So, I find no ‘need’ for a Human Ethical Society building or organization. Now, the various libraries, websites and blogs devoted to scientific endeavors, museums and learning centers – those get my attention. And, curiously enough, provide more answers than religion, and demonstrate how things work, too. It’s even been fascinating finding out how our brains are geared towards certain modes of behavior (which also helps counteract them when necessary.) Religion actually didn’t leave a hole when I abandoned it, it was a hole. Filled to overflowing now, and showing no signs of stopping.

            Want help finding out how god works? Try asking why you’re even looking.

        • Kris

          I’m also very intrigued by the idea, but the observer in me sees some immediate social disintegration that would be fascinating to study. Horrible to witness, or have to live through directly, but as a social experiment? Incomparable. Literally life altering for every person on the planet, regardless of belief.

          For instance, what replaces religion for a conservative Muslim? Not a fanatic, just a perfectly ordinary Muslim who prays five times a day and follows somewhat restrictive dietary practices. This is central to his very sense of self. What fills the space this absence leaves behind? And on another level, how does this impact his food preferences, and his body’s ability to adapt to foods it’s never digested before? how would this impact his physical health?

          Take it a step further, and consider what we in the West consider an extremist. There are assaults on girls schools, poisonings, and acid attacks happening in the name of religion right now in Afghanistan. These creatures believe they are doing their deity’s work, and that these very acts will guarantee them an ideal afterlife. What could possibly replace fanaticism for a fanatic that would be an improvement? I’m being sincere, not sarcastic.

          I’m not going to get into the weeds on that issue (I can find a link if needed), but it brings up an obvious example of a culture disintegrating effect on what could conceivably be half the population of this planet. It’s important to remember that roughly 1/3 of the religious world population is christian – that leaves the remaining 2/3 to follow very different belief systems, to varying degrees of strictness.

          What happens to a huge number of women that have no experience with
          freedoms we take completely for granted? Women with no education, no skills, limited
          social interaction, and suddenly, a complete lack of rules to follow for
          how to live. It would be devastating for some, liberating for others, but s significant alteration for all.

          I must admit, I’d vote “yes” just for the long term positive effect on women living in the Middle East, and the immediate effect on repression and human rights abuses. If only it were so simple.

          So now come back home to a predominantly christian population. All religious belief and institutions gone, but the people themselves are not fundamentally changed. The loss of religion itself isn’t going to change the desire, or for some people the genuine need, to believe in something bigger than yourself. Something looking out for you, something you know has your back on your worst days. Or the need to feel like you are part of a larger community of like minded individuals, such as what you find in a church community. Modern moderate christianity teaches  that believers should have a personal relationship with Jesus. What does that do to the way a believer thinks? If you’re a life-long christian, even an absent minded, non-participating one, it’s had an impact on certain mental processes. I’m not trying to be unkind, but if you attended church as a child, and got past the belief in Santa without seeing the parallel to Jesus, you’ve learned to NOT make certain connections. Speaking from experience, you’ve essentially participated in your own programming to accept some things as “a matter of faith”. By definition, you’ve agreed to believe something in the absence of proof. And if that programming happened to “take” particularly well, you’ll literally fight to the death, or kill, to protect that belief.

          I’m obviously an atheist myself, but only because I came to that conclusion on my own.

          On the other hand, my daughter was never a believer in the first place. My feelings about religion were ambivalent at best when she was born, and I had long since fallen away from the habit of church. So she rarely attended and when she did, she apparently thought it was some kind of weird (but interesting) theater where old men told stories. She never believed, so there’s no particular belief for her to defend.

          Funny, she’s quite an outspoken human rights advocate too.

          BUT, for believers the “hole” left behind is real. So I think at the very least it would take two painful generations (probably three) to get settled in to a science based society. During that time I really think organically something would occur to fill the void. Humans are social creatures, and we prefer the comfort of the familiar. Some sort of consistent gatherings would happen, and certain rituals (meals, games, speeches, whatever – things that everyone would come to expect) would become part of them naturally. That’s the fundamental difference. When you arrive at a secular belief, you’ve taken steps along the way, or you grew up in that environment. If you more or less forcibly remove the believe without replacing what it provides? Look at it not as a value judgment, just recognizing that it can literally be one’s entire life – think Hasidic Jews. Secular humanists have their social justice and good works, skeptics have science, lots of activists, lots of social gatherings . For the most part, secular “religion replacements” are social, but focused. We value action over prayer, and since those are the things we have in common, that’s what we naturally gravitate toward.

          I understand that for lots of non-believers, we don’t feel an absence. We meet the same needs with other things; but the needs that believers are real and should be acknowledged. Otherwise how long would it take for a “new religion” to rise up? Without replacement, a matter of years at most.

          That being said, I truly do believe that the pain of separation is inevitable.  The war on terror is a war on theocracy as much as any other facet, at least from the Muslim point of view – from the Christian perspective, Muslims are all hell bound anyway for believing in the “wrong” god. I’m watching (and not passively) as my country slides in the same direction and it shocks me to my core. Christians themselves can’t even agree (I keep finding reference to roughly 38,000 sects of Christianity) on what the truth of the bible is, yet they’re doing their best to pass laws based on it!

          And yes, Mitt Romney, the likely candidate for the Republican nomination is a Mormon. I’m usually pretty reasonable on the topic of belief, but this one just can’t be ignored. Two words: magic underwear. Google “Mormon Garments” if you’re unfamiliar. (Hint: Google “magic underwear” for more amusing results). I recognize that I’m being disrepectful, and I pride myself on not being rude when unprovoked, but seriously… The man believes he has bullet-deflecting, fire-proof undies – and he wants to be the president.

          This idea should seriously scare you, no matter what your beliefs. Unless, I suppose, your belief is Mormon.

          And it’s clearly time for me to stop writing.

          • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            My “social experiment” is posited on magic, so we can get rid of the societal disruption while we’re at it.

            Seriously, it’s just a rhetorical way of framing the question of what needs or wants exist that religion might uniquely address, and which secular thought doesn’t or couldn’t address at least as well.

            Obviously, religion is so deeply interwoven in our society that it can’t practically be removed in an instant without major disruption. That’s not an argument in favor of religion, of course, any more than it’s an argument in favor of a tumor that happens to have it tendrils inoperably twined throughout your brain. Both may be cured with the steady application of gentle methods, though. And leave the patient healthier for it.

          • Ndonnan

            A very well written letter Kris,i do often wonder how atheists like your daughter respond when they do have a spiritual encounter like a near death/out of body experience.What do you think of this sort of thing?

      • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Al Denelsbeck

        All too often the non-believing side seems to just revel in strictly negative examples of the religious side of things.

        This is bordering on the disingenuous. Am I to assume that you are also quick to point out balance every time religion is claimed as the very root and source of moral thought? Or the frequent instances of pious arrogance?

        If not, then it would appear that someone is obliged to provide that balance.

        I see it quite simply. Actions are good or bad. Any motivator of bad actions that then claims to espouse good is, without caveat, hypocrisy. That in and of itself leaves me uncaring of how some imaginary set of scales gets tipped, or whether religion ends up in the red or the black.

  • TheAnalogKid

    Let me try to be succinct; Bullshit.

    • http://twitter.com/rabidsi Simon Cooper

      I think I can one up you on that, and it goes a little something like this; No.

    • Tom

      If there were a Pulitzer’s for internet comment’s, this one would be somewhere close to nowhere close at all.

      • TheAnalogKid

        Thank you. Now on your way to confession. Don’t forget your beads and magic spells.

  • http://twitter.com/rabidsi Simon Cooper

    Medicine, which varies wildly between practitioners and their patients, is clearly an inconsistent and ramshackle approach to dealing with health issues.

    Homeopathy on the other hand, is wholly standardised and consistent. Water for everything.

    I think you can figure out which one is superior, right Mr de Botton?

    Smug mode engaged.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    So psychotherapy is “inconsistent and ramshackle” but religion, which has tens of thousands of different faiths and denominations, hundreds of holy books with countless interpretations.–that’s the answer?   

  • http://twitter.com/jfigdor Jonathan Figdor

    Great review here, James. I appreciate your balance, and that you called attention to deBotton’s lack of balance.

  • Annie

    We already do have a secular form of confession.  If you commit a crime, turn yourself in.  If you wrong another person, apologize and try to make it right. 

    Thanks for the review, though.  De Botton’s use of phrases like “soul-related needs” and “sins” tells me right off the bat that my money would be better spent on something else.

  • Borax

    Well I’m one atheist that needs no religion. And as far as the whole community and coping and fellowship stuff is concerned, I have family and friends. They seem to be doing a pretty good job for me.

    • Tom

      That’s not the point.

      • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

        Then what is the point? Plenty of people disagree with de Botton that atheists need to mimic the trappings of religion. We can certainly point out that the human desire for community, support, and tradition can be met in entirely secular ways, and that the “need” for certain rituals stems from being raised in a culture that glorifies religious communities and deems them necessary for proper emotional and social development.

  • Tom

    I really need to read this, thanks for bringing this book to attention!

    Oh, and if you got criticisms, “put your money where your mouth is” and read it yourself.  Challenge his claims with citation, like a real critic

    • thebigJ_A

      You mean, “put my money in his pocket”. No, thanks, I’ve gotten the gist of it. I’ll not support such tripe. 

      And since his claims aren’t exactly empirical, that is to say, he’s not bothered with citation, I don’t need citation to dismiss it. That which can be asserted without evidence can be disregarded without evidence.

      I know, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about your superstition of choice, and you’re upset about us mean rationalists throwing cold water on it. Tough.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Al Denelsbeck

    I’m a little startled at how frequently the concept of what someone “needs” is coming up, evidence of a ridiculous social convention. Humans need food, water, and a certain temperature range. That’s it – that’s the whole list of “needs” (though I’m sure there will be no shortage of people trying to add to that list.)

    Everything else can be classified as “desires,” which immediately showcases the weaknesses of the various arguments regarding needs and filling holes (ahem) and all that rot. The approach isn’t, “How do we continue to offer you selfish emotional supplication?” but instead, “Get over it. It’s not about you.”

    There’s also a rather persistent perspective that, without a suitable replacement for whatever ritual anyone happens to engage in, they’ll crash, as if people are completely incapable of changing or adapting – a fallacy the OP pointed out. It’s not the rituals that need to be replaced, but the attitudes towards them. When this is successful, you’ll find nobody really needs the rituals in the first place (and are more than happy to spend Sundays with the family.) The vast majority of religious practices exist solely because of constant reiteration about how good someone is being when performing them. Change the idea of good into, I dunno, actually providing some benefit to others, and the hymns and observances will be forgotten.

    We also can’t ignore that most people worry about what others think and do, and take their cues from that. As more people engage in secular pursuits, those will become the norm. Or, we can simply emphasize thinking for oneself instead of following the flock, which will have the same effect. Building some kind of faux church, or trying to find a replacement for society’s teddy bear, is just failing to understand human motivations.

  • John Small Berries

    Psychotherapy has to be “inconsistent and ramshackle” instead of standardized – unless one believes that the psychological issues people are trying to overcome are identical in every case.

    And, honestly, given the pervasive pedophilia which runs rampant in the ranks of the Catholic church, I’d sincerely have to question just how effective confession is at producing “psychological wellness”.

    Sheesh, the more I learn about de Botton’s ideas, the more ridiculous he seems.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    “Popular philosopher”? Popular with who? In the circles I chat in he is universally reguarded as a bad joke….the Deepak Chopra of Atheism. If you choose to wear the garments of religion as Asshat De Bottom recommends we do you have just replaced deist faith with non deist….Christianity to Buddhism.

    Screw him, screw his Chelsea set chattering classes circle of fanboys, screw his pig ugly temple tower of Babble, and screw any asshat who falls for this snake-oil v2.0 codswallop.

    Sorry if that sound uneducated or crass, but this twonk makes me want to spit blood. As I said, Deepak Chopra in a secularist mask. And yes …. I have seen him speak and read the book. He is a prat, and his book is a pack of arse.

  • Ndonnan

    After a few decades of secular society in the west de Botton is able to stand back and see how things have changed,for better and worse.Impoverished is what he came up with,maybe he is a wishful thinker,how ideal the 50s were with a wife baking and a husband providing,i dont know but he is offering consructive critersism as he sees it.                                                             Personally i feel sorry for him,like humanists in general,hes idealistic,when alls going well and your making good money and you have goals in life ,you see the best,how it should be, idealistic.However thats not the way for most people a lot of the time,we need more.                 Agape restarant,please,sounds like a pick up joint,isnt that what sports clubs ect are for.            I bet in the end deBotton becomes Christian.                                                                                           He will become totally dis illusioned with Atheism,when he realises its values are all relative to the indervidual,and not human kind,the light will turn on.                                                                 What has a uni lecturer ever got to be passionate about compared to a preacher.                          What debotton calls infantileness of human nature, the bible calls sin nature, its self centuredness,indervidualness,the me generation.                                                                                  You only have to be in any relationship to understand how selfish we all are,his is an honest appraisal not an idealistic one.                                                                                                                   So what will community,education,kindness and structure look like without God, impoverished

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brooks-Reeves/702962763 Brooks Reeves

    Posted in error!

  • jflcroft

    Thanks for posting this here! I’m happy to answer a few questions about my review if people have them, but sadly I do not have the time right now to engage in a full discussion of all the comments below.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    Religion hasn’t created much of worth in music and art since monarchs stopped comissioning religious works to emphasize their god-given authority.  Seriously, the only worthwhile thing I can think of is a set of bronze doors for the Vatican done in the 1960s.

  • greenspine

    So Alain de Botton is very concerned about souls and sins. In what way is he an atheist again?

    “Sin”, as a concept, is a religious idea. That someone professing to speak for secular values can even speak seriously about sin, and think we need remedies for it, tells me everything I need to know about de Botton’s ideas.


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