A Short Review of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is an attempt to sketch a ‘humanistic religion’ that addresses existential human needs currently met by religion without recourse to the supernatural.ReligionForAtheists

– Unlike many modern atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens), de Botton recognizes that religion has made many positive contributions to human flourishing and has insights that secular people should appreciate. Conversely, he recognizes that in their rejection of religion, atheists have often unwisely discarded the good along with the bad.

– de Botton’s vision is centered on ‘humanism’ rather than on ‘rationalism’ or ‘science.’ Consequently, he doesn’t shy away from discussions of virtue, vice, aesthetic beauty, or transcendence.

– He seemed to have a reasonable grasp of central Christian doctrines and how they impact a Christian view of morality, education, and community.

– By de Botton’s own admission, the book is not about ‘religion’ at all. 90% of it is a reflection on Christianity, with only the barest smattering of Buddhism and Judaism thrown in (p. 15). And by “Christianity” de Botton actually means “Catholicism”; his distaste for Protestantism is fairly explicit in his chapter on architecture

– In many ways, it’s difficult to say whether de Botton’s praise of religion is significantly better than the Neoatheists’ contempt for it. He compares religious symbolism to corporate branding (“Christianity was an early and adept practitioner of the same kind of ‘branding’ that tour modern corporations specialize in”, p. 285) and Catholic canon law to McDonald’s employee guidelines (“In this…McDonald’s has much in common with the Catholic Church”, p. 287). These kind of observations are likely to strike most believers as condescending if not outright offensive.

– de Botton’s main problem is nicely summarized by the book’s opening line: “the most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true“, p. 11. de Botton thinks he can separate the benefits of religion from its truth claims. Yet I would argue that even if atheism were true, this assumption is highly questionable. De Botton longs for the “moral atmosphere” of Christianity (p. 85), its encouragement of “a sense of community” (p. 23), and its holistic view of education (p. 100-163). But what if the ability of Christianity to provide these benefits is derived from the very truth-claims that de Botton rejects?

For example, de Botton praises Christian education for being “focused on helping a part of us that secular language struggles to even name… the soul.” But why does secular education fail to train the ‘soul’? Because most secular people do not believe in souls! Almost all of the benefits that de Botton wants are inseparable from Christian doctrine. Christian truth is the basis for Christian practices like compassion, community, forgiveness, and humility, and it is the means by which these practices are maintained . If we discard the truth-claims of Christianity, what mechanism does de Botton propose to tether us to these practices? For instance, if God will not ultimately judge the world, why should I leave judgment to God rather than taking it into my own hands? If other human beings are not made in God’s image, why think that all individuals possess equal value and dignity?

– de Botton’s approach is not new. His final chapter discusses Auguste Comte’s failed “Religion of Humanity,” but it could equally have talked about the National American Ethical Union or the Unitarian church. Indeed, I wonder how de Botton explains the decay of liberal churches in the U.S. which have -to a large degree- followed de Botton’s advice by jettisoning traditional Christian doctrines while trying to retain humanistic values. If we can have community, identity, virtue, and beauty without the supernatural trappings of religion, why aren’t people flocking to the Episcopal church? This is a perpetual conundrum for both atheists and liberal Christians who see traditional Christian doctrine as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than as a non-negotiable foundation on which any church is built.

It is hard to appreciate this book. I found de Botton’s style, which I suppose was meant to be ingratiating and playful, to be grating and mildly pretentious. He dismisses the most important question of religion (‘is it true?’) out-of-hand. His ‘humanistic religion’ is a repackaged idea that has been tried time and again without leaving much of a mark on human history. The book was also full of artistic conceptions of ‘secular temples’ and ‘secular churches’ that were almost unbearably silly (I can only hope that this silliness was intentional). B-

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