de Botton, Alain. Religion for Atheists. Signal (McClelland and Stewart), New York, 2012. NF; 11/17.
I found this author’s style and ideas compelling. His honesty, humility, erudition, and ironic smarts seemed to me absolutely right, again and again. Yes! Of course! It’s not just okay but also liberating to adore, hold dear, admire, and live everything wonderful about a religious life, without – absolutely rejecting and never looking back at – the absurd literal metaphysic we seem unable to detach from what’s true and rewarding about religious experience. The message here is similar to what Dr Seamus O’Mahony said in his fine book on death: The Way We Die Now.
I highlighted an unprecedented 64 passages in my Kindle.
de Botton makes sure right at the start that “of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.” His book, he tells us is for people who have no belief “in miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrubbery… (or the) exploits of unusual men and women like the 13th-century St Agnes of Montepulciano who was said to be able to levitate two feet off the ground while praying and to bring children back from the dead…”
But that said, through the rest of his essay he is completely convincing in his respect and adoration for what religion has done and can do for human redemption, kindness, education, art, and institutions, among other things. There is a deep and humble appreciation of how awful it is at times to be a human being and how completely clever religion has been at dealing with that:
The (Jewish) Day of Atonement has the immense advantage of making the idea of saying sorry look like it came from somewhere else, the initiative of neither the perpetrator nor the victim. It is the day itself that is making us sit here and talk about the peculiar incident six months ago when you lied and I blustered and you accused me of insincerity and I made you cry, an incident that neither of us can quite forget but that we can’t quite mention either and which has been slowly corroding the trust and love we once had for each other.
The author has no truck with what we take to be moral escapism in some of the ridiculous religious experience we see around us:
An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognizing ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.
… and none with modern politically correct dodges where we throw our moral and emotional babies out with the bathwater of everything wrong with religion:
we are embarrassed to admit to the true nature of our inner needs. We are fatefully in love with ambiguity, uncritical of the Modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.
Boring University professors need to take lessons from black Pentecostal preachers:
Only then will our timid pedagogues be able to shake off their inhibitions during lectures on Keats or Adam Smith and, unconstrained by false notions of propriety, call out to their comatose audiences, ‘Do you hear me? I say do you hear me?’ And only then will their now-tearful students fall to their knees, ready to let the spirit of some of the world’s most important ideas enter and transform them.
… the irony cuts both ways.
I especially enjoyed his realistic and ironic treatment of marriage in the chapter on “Pessimism”:
Christian and Jewish marriages, while not always jovial, are at least spared the second order of suffering which arises from the mistaken impression that it is somehow wrong or unjust to be malcontent.
…religions do recognize our desire to adore passionately. They know of our need to believe in others, to worship and serve them and to find in them a perfection which eludes us in ourselves. They simply insist that these objects of adoration should always be divine rather than human.
In their effort to keep us from hurling our curdled dreams at one another, the faiths have the good sense to provide us with angels to worship and lovers to tolerate.
This author’s humility, including no doubt about the frailties of marriage and sex, is always front and centre. I found myself comparing it to what Malcolm Gladwell seemed to be trying to do in David and Goliath. There is an ocean of difference between how de Botton’s irony gives his humility credence and Gladwell’s lack of it calls the humility he is trying to sell into question. There’s no mistaking de Botton’s sincerity and appreciation of the grandeur of humility in describing the experience of going to church (remember this guy is a convicted atheist):
We have no reason left to dissemble or lie in a building dedicated to honouring the terror and weakness of a man who was nothing like the usual heroes of antiquity, nothing like the fierce soldiers of Rome’s army or the plutocrats of its Senate, and yet who was nevertheless worthy of being crowned the highest of men, the king of kings.
August Comte for all his failures seemed to have it right: “(Comte) lamented the arbitrary way in which, as soon as people felt they could no longer credit Jesus’s status as a divine being, they also had to forgo all the wisdom promulgated by Christianity.”
This book changed my thinking. In a way there are two things going on: What’s it all about? And what am I all about? On the first question, there has to be some beginning, but it is so unimaginably beyond me that I wouldn’t dare reach out for it let alone pretend to have a relationship with it. It’s a hundred trillion – forget it – it’s beyond numbers. I think this is approximately about the difference between theism and deism. Theism entails an arrogance I’m not entitled to. So although there has to be a first cause, I can never personally approach it. All I can hope for is animal experience of comfort that includes I’m somebody and I matter. The comfort that religious thinking (short of metaphysical conviction) invites us to experience by encouraging significance through humility is comforting and there’s nothing false or delusional about reaching out for that comfort. That temporary comfort.
And okay, because my thinking about a first cause is speculative, I guess I’m still agnostic about theism. But it’s a distant theoretical not-knowing, distinct from anything resembling hope. I’m left with humility and the possibility of access to some of the wisdom that religion has accumulated over millennia.
For anyone, and there must be a lot of us around these days, who calls themselves agnostic because they have trouble squaring a logical and sentimental understanding of how wise and comforting religious experience may have been in the past – and could still be – with an unquestionable knowledge that the hard metaphysic religion stubbornly clings to just can’t be real, this book is not just a pleasure to read but a look at a potential way forward.
Definitely among my top handful in the last few years. 9.4/9.6