Recently, an intriguing new book has appeared with what purports to be a new perspective on the long running Atheist/Believers wars. Called “Religion For Atheists”, the book suggests that, ”rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheist should instead steal from them,” because, the author, Alain de Botton, a non-believer himself, suggests, “they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.” Religions, de Botton points out, are adept at building a sense of community, improving relationships, direct our attention beyond the twenty-four hour news cycle, enlarge our vision of the world, and help us to expereince art, architecture and music.
Alain deBotton resides in Great Britain and works in that great British tradition of the public intellectual. He’s written on philosophy, literature, architecture and education, and has now turned his attention to religion. de Botton has proposed a new vision of the importance of religion in secular life. A good place to get a perspective on his ideas is his recent address, called “Atheism 2.0″ at a TED Conference. You can catch it at: http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0.html
Alain de Botton is engaging, thoughtful and smart; I like his ideas and I am pleased with the discussion that he has sparked. It is not sufficient, as de Botton points out, for nonbelievers to pronounce religion as hocus pocus and attempt to throw the whole thing in the trash. Or the dust bin, as the English would say. For lots off reasons, but particularly because it doesn’t work. Because, and here de Botton and I agree, you have to understand the human needs that religion addresses, and the humanizing power that religions bring to the world. Religions provide and have long provided, community, connection, comfort, appreciation, art, music, perspective, hope and the opportunity for growth.
I could not agree more. Alain de Botton has provided a much needed affirmation of the immense humanizing functions that religions have long provided that many critics of religion so often overlook or devalue. And by this I mean the capacities and practices that make us most fully human. And added to de Botton’s lists, I would add the encouragement of the practice of charity which makes us more generous people and the practice of righteous indignation that moves us to action to fight injustice and build a better world.
Where I part company from de Botton, and this is not a serious division, is with the claim that Atheism 2.0 is a new idea. Ethical Humanism has been practicing Religion 2.0 for over a century (as have others). Ethical Humanism, originally know as Ethical Culture, grew from just such insights as de Botton presents. One Hundred and thirty-six years ago Felix Adler developed the outline of a religious movement that left theological speculation to others, sidestepped superstition and dispensed with ritual and sacrament. Instead, he focused on reason, ethics and action, and he kept community at the center. For, as Adler observed, it is our life together in community that offers us the best opportunity to become fully human.
So, I like de Botton’s new book, “Religion For Atheists”. I hope many people will read it, and then look us up.