Friday, April 6, 2012

Restoring the faith - at least, sort of.

There's a certain irony to sitting down on Good Friday to review a book that's ostensibly for non-believers. But then Alain de Botton's latest collection of essays, Religion for Atheists, is not quite what the title might suggest. It's certainly not a rant at Christianity and to my mind, much of what it says ought to be of interest to the faithful. It would be a neat parallel to the book's central theme, if, by the time you've finished this post, you've concluded that maybe Good Friday wasn't a bad day to publish it after all.

De Botton's starting point is that for him (and arguably for the majority of people in the developed world) the supernatural claims of religions can no longer be taken seriously. Thereafter, he doesn't waste a sentence in examining the scriptures or weighing respective claims of redemption and afterlife - nor does he seek to judge the historical influence of religion on society. For though these issues may be important in other contexts, they are not relevant to de Botton's aim - which is to argue that even if we accept the ills and falsities of religion, it still has much to teach us about living a good life.

A philosopher friend of mine can barely say the words 'Alain de Botton' without sneering. I'm sure this reflects the views of many professional thinkers - his essays are relatively lightweight; not in the same league as those wrestling with issues of consciousness or logic. But then few professional philosophers can write as engagingly and with as much practical relevance as de Botton. His target is not those concerned with the minutiae of academic debate - it is people like me; people who alongside their everyday life, find themselves pondering its absurdities and sorrows, as well as its joys and purpose.

In a series of essays, accompanied by witty illustrations, de Botton argues that religions, in the way they are organised and practised, in the way they educate and guide, have much to console and inspire us. He challenges non-believers to look again at the positive aspects of religious community, at the need for rules and boundaries, at the merits of religious architecture, at the power for good in institutions. In doing so, he gently exposes the cracks in our egos, giving voice to inner desires for comfort and structure. I especially liked his take on Catholic saints and souvenir icons -  suggesting even the tackiest of figurines can serve a purpose in reminding us daily, of the virtues we desire.

If I am honest I opened the book with deep scepticism. I wrote recently of my own lack of faith, at my incredulity at those who seem able to embrace it, despite the absence of empirical evidence or a deductive logic that is consistent with the way we make everyday decisions. As de Botton introduced his ideas I could sense myself bristling, searching for errors and inconsistencies - but the more I read, the more it occurred to me that de Botton was answering one of the few questions of belief that gives me pause for thought: why is it that so many of those whose views and approach to life I most admire, turn out to have faith?

It would be easy to criticise these essays. An obvious line is that de Botton cherry picks the most positive qualities of religion as suits his purpose. He does not mention those more unsavoury aspects that its proponent would have us contextualise or consign to history. But this would be both churlish and to miss the point. Religion for Atheists is not about belief, nor is it about the sociological merits of religion - it is about what might help us lead a good and flourishing life; it is about the consolations we crave in the face of what, at times, can seem an overwhelmingly pointless existence.

In this way, the essays are a continuation of de Botton's previous books - each of which uses a thematic 'hook' (love, work, architecture, travel, even Proust) to address much the same issues. A fair criticism would be that he is reaching the limits of this theme - at different times, Religion for Atheist seemed to be either stretching the point or too obvious in his choice of analogies.  In my view, de Botton's earlier book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was subtler, wittier and ultimately more revealing in its consideration of modern life.

There are undoubtedly some who'd describe Religion for Atheist as full of 'stuff and nonsense'; too highfalutin or contrived to matter.  I'm not so sure. I love life, and with luck, I might sustain mine for another thirty years; my youngest son, whom I adore beyond words, can expect to reach ninety. Yet in a wider temporal context that is barely a blink of an eye - in three generations we will all us be forgotten. If I thought too hard about this I could quickly come to tears.

As an atheist I can take no comfort from the prospect of an afterlife - my concern is how to make the best use (in every sense) of the limited time I have.  And to my surprise,  I found myself agreeing with de Botton: whilst religions may be wrong in their transcendental promises, they do still have something to teach us.


  1. Hello Mark:
    It may, we feel on reflection, be a particularly apposite time to investigate the themes and ideas which are contained in this book on Good Friday. After all, we view this as a day above all others, perhaps, as a time when one can focus on the absolute essentials of Life, the essence of being, the frailty of humans and the wonder of a life giving spirit.

    Living life to the full is something which we too hold close to our hearts and we agree that there is much to educate and inspire us in this regard, if no other, amongst religious teaching.

  2. This has piqued my interest and may just find its way onto my bookshelf as a consequence...

  3. Your review has awakened my interest too, Mark, and I may well get hold of it. I have read individual essays by de Botton, but never an entire book, but the theme of this one intrigues me as someone who does have faith.

  4. How very interesting, thankyou for posting this Mark.

  5. How strange that you should be writing about faith in this review at the same time as I posted something about a vicar losing his faith! The vicar has done it back to front. Normally the older you get the more you turn towards the higher purpose of life. With age comes wisdom and reflection.

    I had read another review of Alain de Botton's book and I would like to read it myself. While I cannot begin to understand, logically, an afterlife, I can allow myself a 'leap of faith' to a world we cannot understand. It has happened many other times in the course of human history - after all, everyone thought the world was flat, didn't they? no-one could conceive of it being any other way. Until brave explorers discovered otherwise.

    This world of ours has so much still to reveal, if we stupid humans do not destroy it in the process. Energy is all around us, it is what holds every atom and electron together and it can neither be created or destroyed. But has anyone ever properly explained 'energy' to me? No. Is that not a scientific leap of faith? In a way, yes, despite the 'physics' behind it ( Negative energy. Positive energy. Forces for good or evil. Energy that simply holds things together, or forces them apart.

    There is still so much that we cannot understand in this world. For me that is the definition of Faith - an acceptance of that fact. Religious faith so often becomes stronger as we age because we are having to face our own mortality (which is never a great thought). We no longer have the hopes, aspirations and, yes, energies of youth, to pull us along through the days and minutes and seconds of our life on this earth. We need something else to make us believe that what we have achieved on our time on this planet, whether great things or small, was for a reason. That is had a value. That it was worthwhile. Our soul demands it and it is this that keeps us going when the going gets tough. Or so it should be. Without it, things could look very black indeed....

  6. I come from the same philosophical corner as you and when I first saw the subject of your review I had some doubt. But you put together a review which makes me want to buy the book and read it - no mean feat in itself. Now that is good blogging.

  7. I like Alain de Botton, he's accessible and entertaining. I'm also interested in religion, and as a christian (with a small c, because I don't follow a specific church) this book sounds intriguing.

  8. Just to add to the mood of Easter weekend, and having heard Cardinal O'Brien extolling his followers into wearing the cross at all times, I have just placed an order, with the Humanist Society of Scotland, for more Happy Humanist lapel badges, which I undertake to wear at all times. I think I need to be placing another book order soon, but it's a dangerous place is yon amazon website, always seems to cost me a fortune

  9. Interesting stuff. I have come more and more to feel that the tenets of religion offer much to help people live a good and happy life. And yet I am not a believer. I wonder how it much it matters not to have the accompanying faith? Hugely it seems to me but maybe churches and mosques and synagogues are full of people who want the life and the community and the structure and have their own private wobbles about the faith.

  10. My husband attended schools run by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits.
    He was struck by the honesty of a Christian Brother who told his class that even if his faith was foundless, the way of living his faith meant that he had led a good life.

  11. Hmmmm I'm wondering if we're not getting a bit circular here. Even if the faith bits of my religion are nonsense, I've led a good life ... because my religion tells me so?

    It depends where we get the concepts of a good life, of course, and perhaps these can be toaught outside of a religious context?

  12. It is nice to hear a more balanced view: not "you are wrong" but "you can teach me something that will improve my life". If only we always viewed everyone that way, irrespective of faith.