Philosopher Alain de Botton’s new book tries to steal the best bits of religion and leave God behind. As Martin Saunders discovers, that means quarterly acts of forgiveness and an annual day of free love.
Alain de Botton is very pleased with himself. ‘At last’ (!), proclaims the blurb for his book Religion for Atheists, ‘the boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved on.’ De Botton is a professional philosopher and founder of The School of Life, an alternative London ‘college’ which offers courses in better living. His writing, which has included reflections on architecture, travel and work, suggests a humanist world view. This perspective, rather than one of rabid atheism, seems to allow him to view faith more soberly than a Dawkins or Hitchens.
This new book gives life to his latest Big Idea – that rather than mocking and tearing down organised religions, the secular world should steal their best bits. In this book, he attempts not only to pick the choice cuts from what in his view is religion’s carcass, he also suggests practical ways in which the ideas proposed (but not owned) by the major faiths, such as community or forgiveness, can be reimagined for the modern age.
Beyond a few opening words of explanation, in which the very idea that religion might contain actual truth is brushed past with a scoff, de Botton dives straight in to the practical application of his hypothesis. The bulk of the book takes us through nine key teachings and emphases of religion, emptying each of any sense of divinity, and then constructing new initiatives from what remains.
We start by looking at the notion of community; the idea that we may want to relate to a wide circle of other humans for the common good. Religion is a great vehicle for this, he argues, because it creates natural contexts in which we can practice it. The faiths address problems such as loneliness, selfobsession and the strange alienation of living among millions in a city, by bringing people together in the pursuit of something bigger. Using the example of the Catholic Mass, de Botton unpacks how corporate religious events contain elements which subtly strengthen the bonds between their participants, and help people to relate to those with whom they would not normally mix. He uses this, and the Eucharist in particular, as a springboard to talk about how eating together with relative strangers is a key element of practising faith in community. And here, de Botton puts his hypothesis into action, and delivers one of the practical punchlines scattered throughout the book. What if we were to now remove the idea of faith from this scenario?
So de Botton proposes the idea of an agape restaurant as ‘an ideal restaurant of the future’, in which people are seated along benches, deliberately spaced apart from friends or family members, and given an instruction book to help them navigate the initial awkwardness of conversation with strangers. ‘By simple virtue of occupying the same space,’ he writes, ‘guests would – as in a church – be signaling their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship’.
This is how he tends to close each section or chapter; either with a brief description of a new idea that has stolen elements from the practices of religious communities, or with a mocked-up illustration of the same. Sticker reward charts for adults to encourage kindness; billboards to promote moral virtues; even an annual orgy of debauchery in the aforementioned restaurant based on the medieval Feast of Fools (a long-forbidden practice among rogue clergy which de Botton seems to slyly suggest was part of orthodox Christianity). Supposedly, these strategies will help us to become a better society by rediscovering and recapturing ancient wisdom.
Here, for me at least, is where the argument begins to unravel. Throughout the book, as we progress through essays on kindness, education, perspective and even architecture, de Botton provides interesting analysis of how religion works. Yet his repeated inability to appropriate its ideas for reuse in any initiative that feels like it might stand half a chance on Dragon’s Den suggests that he doesn’t actually grasp why religion ‘works’.
When talking about forgiveness, for instance, de Botton is drawn to the idea of the Jewish Day of Atonement; the annual opportunity for Jews to seek and grant forgiveness. In fact, he argues, it is so useful not to be carrying this kind of emotional baggage around, that we should instigate a secular Day of Atonement every quarter. Yet he himself acknowledges that forgiveness itself is enabled on such a day by the divine elements of religion – not the practical ones. The day ‘has the immense advantage of making the idea of sorry look like it came from somewhere else, the initiative of neither the perpetrator nor the victim,’ he writes – but it isn’t ‘the day’ which is the ‘somewhere else’. The Day of Atonement only works because of the context of religion; Jews forgive not just out of a sense of duty, but also because of historical and spiritual factors – they seek forgiveness not just from one another, but from God. Without these elements, the idea is simply emptied of its transformational power.
The suggestion that religion can be reduced to the sum of its parts is no more plausible than the idea that true love can be represented by a mathematical or scientific formula. When we empty religious teachings and practices of ‘God’, we empty them also of their power and meaning. Paul writes: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’ (1 Corinthians 1:13). The inability of Religion for Atheists to ring true proves his point rather well.
The book is written in what feels like deliberately clever language, designed to assert the author’s intelligence. One imagines de Botton’s face adorning the office dartboard over at the Campaign for Plain English, but more importantly this style suggests that, in stark contrast to religion’s appeal to the lesser members of any society, these ideas are only truly for the intellectual elite. In addition, while the book suggests from the jacket onward that it is trying to ‘rise above’ petty squabbling about the truthfulness of religion, the writing is laced with barbs which undercut that claim. God is obviously dead; it is difficult to stay awake in a church service; ‘of course’ no religions are true. These statements suggest that, rather than trying to redeem religion in some way, this is really just another covert attempt to undermine it.
Instead of trying to be smarter than God, I’d humbly suggest Alain de Botton update his field research. The religion presented in his new book is bereft of vibrancy; little wonder then he has struggled to find a pulse within it. Instead of gazing at ancient works of art and architecture, he would do well to consider the living work of grace that is the modern Church. The Christian faith that many of us know bears little resemblance to the rather historically rooted religion we find here, which is perhaps why Religion for Atheists overlooks God’s transformational power, and in so doing misses the most vital element of all.