Religion for atheists, according to Alain de Botton

Posted by barbara on June 11, 2012



Having enjoyed de Botton's contemplative Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (, with its respectful insights into an ecletic mix of unusual, and in some cases mind numbing jobs, I approached Religion for Atheists with a mix of curiosity and enthusiasm.

But as I skimmed through his latest book , what was missing for me, and surprisingly so given the subject matter, was the key reason why so many individuals surely cleave to their particular brand of religion or spiritualism through thick and thin or until they lose their faith.

Instead of making this the centrepiece of his thesis, de Botton devotes chapters to the importance of building a sense of community, getting more out of art and architecture, and inventing rituals that give meaning to the lives of non believers, in my opinion peripheral benefits of believing in a higher power.

Surely religious folk sign up for, and stay true to, their faith of choice because they sincerely believe that in doing so, they will become the recipients of special treatment that applies not only to life on earth but 'life' after death, as in life everlasting?

The closest I got to this pivotal motivation for embracing a religious belief was in de Botton's Chapter 5 'Tenderness'. In his focus on the 'cult of Mary', Alain refers to the 'needs of childhood' and the 'need for comfort', in doing so strongly identifying Christianity with the Roman Catholic faith.

Having been brought up in the Protestant faith, I have to report that for non Catholics, Mary plays a bit part only, with Jesus, her son, the pivotal figure in the Presybyterian church, and presumably the Anglican, Methodist, Congregational and other breakaway churches.

Regardless of whether de Botton focuses on Mother Mary to the exclusion of a 'God the father' figure, or his son Jesus Christ, one wonders whether the author is describing, and to some extent dismissing, the impulse to religion as a childish cry for help to something or someone who is more powerful than the parents of the individual seeking solace, as in a 'supra' parent.

If that is de Botton's intent, is his latest book a gentle and reasoned acknowledgment of what adhering to a belief offers while at the same time criticising in an underhand way the mindset of those who believe that they and their loved ones and their interests are being watched over by their spiritual leader on a personal and minute by minute basis? Having been there, done that in my teenage years, I can profess that it is an incredibly empowering experience to feel that one's every move and every decision, let alone anything that happens to you, good or bad, is 'ordained' by your higher power. How can you go wrong?

So it is that I suspect that de Botton is oh so subtly implying that the true believers of this or that faith are avoiding growing up and taking individual responsibility by outsourcing that role to their god of choice, 'killing them softly' sotto voce.

What is absent from de Botton's 'Religion for Atheists', in my opinion, is his failure to explore the daily 'start-the-day-right' practices that many non-believers routinely practice, be they some form of meditation, yoga nidra, affirmations, prayers, and so on. Might not such practices be as nourishing for believers and non believers alike. It should not be overlooked that for many people, their 'higher power' is their true or inner self, as in their subconscious.

Why not compare these practices with the practice of prayer by true believers? Surely this was a missed opportunity.

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