Yesterday, I was feeling pretty low and, frankly, I still feel pretty bad. But I woke up at 7am and I have the whole day ahead of me. Just sleeping well and waking up well is enough to put a change, even a small change, into your mood. So, yesterday I said that I was finishing Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and that I would give my thoughts on it at some point. Well, I finished it last night. Thus, as promised, here is a post.
Uses of Religion
“A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion.”
That is the subtitle to the book and I found it an interesting idea – the concept that religion could be a completely utilitarian thing. Like a grocery store for food, or a dentist for your teeth. What does a religion supply? Food, medical, home supplies, etc. They’re all covered by a variety of institutions. So what does religion give us?
The book posits two reasons why humans invented religion. 1) To create community and 2) to cope with pain. These reasons, these needs still exist today even though ‘God is dead.’ But religion is apparently in decline and so is as dead as God, yet still we have these needs. Thus, de Botton tries to find a way to incorporate the benefits of religion into a secular context, to give us the community and the mechanisms to cope with pain without resorting to God.
So, inherently, the question of the entire book is can religion work without God?
“The challenge facing atheists 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.”
That’s the question, isn’t it? Does religion own the ideas and rituals which offer so much to us? I cannot say that this book satisfactorily answers this question. From my point of view, I would welcome the atheists’ and de Botton’s thesis that it does not, that the comfort (the deep, abiding, soulful and transcendent comfort) provided by religion could be equally available in a secular form. It’s not that I have anything against God (my thoughts on him are a jury out to lunch). But I believe that many people, including myself, would welcome the chance to experience it without the fear that they were being poached by religious hunters who wish to add a notch to their belt, a tally mark to round out their count of converts.
The book really doesn’t do enough to confront that question. The argument could easily be made that religion does indeed own the ideas and rituals associated with it. From the beginning of time, religion has owned these things and it is only in recent decades that atheism has started to truly rise. Without religion, secularism and all of this book’s recommendations would have to become a new religion. In the end, I don’t think we can get away without religion. Ultimately, it will always be there in some form or another.
It wasn’t until the end of the book, the last paragraph, that the real kicker for me took hold.
“The essence of the argument presented here is that many of the problems of the modern soul can successfully be addressed by solutions put forward by religions, once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure within which they were first conceived.”
For me, this ‘essence’ was the problem for me. You cannot divorce a soul from the supernatural. By definition, the soul is a supernatural part of man. Take God away, but the soul remains. No secular religion will succeed by trying to deny this fact. Part of man is supernatural and always will be. And by denying this fact, I believe that the book fails in its entire point. Without the soul, everything suggested in this book falls flat, is nothing more than an appeal to reason or to emotion.
Religion is not effective because it appeals to reason or because it gives us waves of emotional fervour. It is effective because it literally seeks to feed the often ignored, always underappreciated supernatural part of man. That is the cause of its success over the millennia.
I Wish It Had Worked
Part of me was really rooting for this book and for Alain de Botton’s thesis overall. But I think it fell short because it is inherently flawed. I highly recommend this book to everyone, but especially to my religious friends. No, you won’t agree with it, but it will give you an insight into your religious practice that you might not have had otherwise. You will begin to understand how and why religion works to make you a fuller person. You will understand the psychological effects just as well as you understand its spiritual effects. And from that perspective, this book might do more good than it expected to.