Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Alain de Botton argues the case for practical religion
One may find it absurd to subscribe to a religion but—hear me out—what if non-believers need not be threatened by it? Should an atheist simply dismiss the fundamental beliefs of those who are convinced of eternal life and an omnipotent being—far greater than what our finite minds can grasp? Or are there practices, even doctrines, worth adapting for one to live a fuller life? Contemporary philosopher, bestselling writer and The School of Life founder Alain de Botton believes this to be the case.
It is possible to live in a “harmonious disagreement” between two sides—those who believe and those who don’t. By focusing on an umbrella of religions—primarily Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism—he borrows spiritual teachings and experiences to fill in gaps of secular life.
“Atheism shouldn’t cut itself off from the rich sources of religion,” declares De Botton in a condensed TEDxTalk entitled Atheism 2.0, an elaborate introduction to his bestselling book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Now if you need more convincing, tread on.
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During the decline of church attendance in the early 19th century, culture was considered a viable means to look for guidance, consolation and morality. Scripture was then exchanged for culture. Still, wisdom is teachable through sermons, which want to change one’s life; meanwhile, lectures want to feed information. We need help—not only enlightenment—to address the great questions of life as if we were merely children.
Humans are forgetful; history is evidence of this. We won’t remember what we don’t reread. We need repetition and, maybe, to get down on our knees in the process of doing it. This is why the Bible and the Qur’an are read day-to-day by believers—lest we forget.
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The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is the most religious site for Jewish people; it is a place of pilgrimage and tears. Thousands of people visit to recite prayers—written or spoken—and weep in an “ocean of suffering.” For Christians, Marian devotees allow themselves to be weak in her presence as humans are, by nature, infantile and soft-headed. They draw comfort in the projected belief of her “unblemished heart, her selfless sympathy and her limitless patience,” so far from what we know to be true of ourselves. At times, we just need to be held and reassured. “It will all be okay,” says religion.
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The sense of loneliness we all feel is shrouded by the consolation of community, ever so present in faithful congregations. Everyone is welcome in the Holy Eucharist, which is, in essence, a meal where everyone gets a (literal) seat at the table—much like the Jews with their Sabbath meal. These gatherings and feasts satiate an individual’s spiritual hunger, which overflows to the need of others.
In the Jewish day of Atonement, one gets to review the year that was and, ultimately, receive and beget forgiveness. “Human error is proclaimed as a general truth,” writes De Botton. “Asking others for forgiveness with courage and honesty signals an understanding of, and respect for, the difference between the human and the divine, ” he continues.
In Atheist 2.0, De Botton finishes with this thought, “So, really, my concluding point is you may not agree with religion, but at the end of the day, religions are so subtle, so complicated, so intelligent in many ways that they’re not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone; they’re for all of us.”
Religions can be sporadically useful on a dizzying scale—without that mystical feeling involved. One should be open to it and leave the rest to reason.
Art Alexandra Lara