Guest Post by Julian Novitz
Alain de Botton would like us to be happier. By ‘us’ I mean people like him, and me, and probably you as well (though I realise that’s a pretty big assumption to make in the second sentence of this review): readers who approach life with the gentle, possibly naïve hope that books, art, architecture and other nice things might somehow make it better. Alongside pleasure and enjoyment, it’s often tempting to assume that great literature, visiting art galleries, or engaging with profound thought and beauty will have some kind of lasting beneficial effect on us, though we’re often vague as to what that might be. De Botton’s novelty as a popular thinker is that he is constantly preoccupied with tackling this question. Rather than taking the value of these activities as preordained, he wants to understand and explain their utility. What is it about them that will improve our outlook and attitudes? How can they make us happy?
With this question in mind, de Botton has already demonstrated How Proust Can Change Your Life, offered us The Consolations of Philosophy, laid out The Architecture of Happiness, and delivered other works that examine the causes of unhappiness and offer ideas as to how they might be addressed. At his core, de Botton is a very good self-help writer, perhaps the best. He is witty, eloquent, erudite and occasionally moving. He aims not just to make literature and philosophy accessible to his audience, but to also demonstrate how they are useful, encouraging his readers to develop deeper insights into their own lives through engagements with art and architecture, writers and thinkers. However, while de Botton’s almost constant focus on practical utility is fundamentally well intentioned it is also limited, and this becomes problematically apparent in his latest book Religion for Atheists.
The subtitle of Religion for Atheists gives us a clear indication that de Botton is applying a very similar approach in his investigation of religion. The book is ‘a non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion’ and de Botton’s contention is that even if they dismiss the ‘supernatural’ components of religious belief as false, atheists can still benefit from engaging with certain carefully selected elements of religious thought and practice. Doing so will help them to build a stronger sense of community, manage their relationships, overcome negative feelings, and gain a healthier perspective on their lives. De Botton sets out to demonstrate, firstly, that atheist thought towards religion has been constricted by its tendency to focus on the veracity of religious beliefs or the destructive effects of dogma (an approach perhaps best exemplified in recent years by works like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great) and, secondly, that elements of religious practice can be used as models for secular rituals, customs and institutions that may satisfy unfulfilled needs in the lives of atheists. De Botton largely succeeds with this first goal, but is generally less convincing when it comes to the second, to the detriment of the book as a whole.
As de Botton moves through his various subject matters (‘Community’, Kindness’, ‘Education’, ‘Tenderness’, etc.) he provides us with examples of the particular understandings and benefits offered by religious thought and observance. The Catholic Mass strengthens one’s sense of community by bringing disparate people together, and the veneration of Saints offers worshippers exemplars and role models that guide them towards kinder, more compassionate lives. Temples and cathedrals provide beautiful spaces for retreat and contemplation, texts like the Book of Job offer a valuable sense of perspective. According to de Botton, in secular society’s haste to remove religious ideas and practices from public life and discourse, a growing number of atheists are cut off from institutions that offer this kind of comfort and direction. Rather than adopting a hostile approach towards religion, or mocking and deriding belief, de Botton encourages his fellow atheists to think about what can be ‘stolen’ from religion instead, picking and choosing from the ‘best parts’ of practice and ritual. Our approaches to art, literature and education can also be adapted to provide the types of guidance previously offered by religion.
Elements of the approach that de Botton advocates here are valuable. Religion has been a guiding force in human life for thousands of years. It offers us systems of thought, metaphor, value and collective identity that cannot be as easily cast aside as the more virulent advocates of atheism would have us believe. It is refreshing to read a book that reflects not upon the benighted superstitions and/or prejudices of believers, but rather upon what might be missing from the lives of atheists instead. As mentioned, de Botton is convincing when he describes the social and psychological value of religious practice, though his focus is rather narrow. Catholicism is the religion that de Botton draws on most specifically in his arguments, though Jewish and Buddhist practices are also discussed. Islam and Hinduism don’t even make it into the index. Protestant faiths are only mentioned in order to compare them, unfavourably, with the principles and aesthetics of Catholicism (suggesting that their strong emphasis on an individual relationship with God doesn’t fit with what de Botton sees as the chief virtue of religion: that it offers spaces in which to develop a sense of community, collectivity, and – occasionally – uniformity). Also, as Terry Eagleton touches upon in his strikingly harsh review in the Guardian, there is something problematic about the ease with which de Botton separates what he sees as the social and psychology utility of religious practice from the content of religious belief, given that this is likely to be at entirely at odds with how religious practitioners themselves would identify the value of their observances. Personal happiness and contentment is not usually the aim of religious practices, but rather their side effect.
This connects to my principle criticism of Religion for Atheists, which is that the possible solutions that de Botton offers for the gaps or shortfalls that he identifies in the lives of atheists are unsatisfying, sometimes even tacky. After a thoughtful discussion of how the Catholic Mass bolsters a sense of community by providing a space where people from all walks of life can participate in a ritual observance as equals, de Botton suggests, as an atheist equivalent, a chain of ‘Agape Restaurants’, where ’the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart’ and patrons would be required to follow a ritualised pattern of conversation over the course of their meal with strangers (asking ‘What do you do?’ ‘Where do your children go to school?’ and eventually building to deeper questions such as ‘What do you regret?’ and ‘Whom can you not forgive?’). The sense of smallness and humility in the face of the mysteries of existence that can be found through readings of the Book of Job could be replicated by insisting that ‘a percentage of all prominently displayed television screens on public view be hooked up to live feeds from the transponders of our extraplanetary telescopes’. These and the other ideas that de Botton puts forward aren’t necessarily without merit, but I fail to see how they can be compared with, or substitute for, religious practice. The utility that de Botton identifies in religious customs and rituals is produced by the collective belief that motivates them, not by the customs or rituals themselves. Simply implementing substitute observances for atheists will not necessarily reproduce this, because the historic belief that unites worshippers — and gives religious practices their sense of importance and emotional resonance — is not present. Unlike observant Jews, practicing Christians or adherents of any other religious creed, there is no shared set of beliefs or values that I can assume would automatically unite me with another atheist, other than our lack of belief in a higher power or deity (this outlook deserves respect, but is not necessarily something that we can come together and celebrate). One of the most distinctive and troubling elements of the atheist position is its inescapable individualism, and I am not sure if it can be overcome with the quick fix, band-aid solutions that de Botton is offering.
In any case, while I am dubious about the idea of picking and choosing from various religions to meet unfulfilled spiritual and emotional needs, I would advocate picking and choosing from the sections and chapters of Religion for Atheists to search for ideas that might help to develop an understanding of the relationships that atheists may have with religion. The chapters on ‘Perspective’ and ‘Pessimism’ for example, are beautiful, and could easily stand on their own. ‘Art’ offers some pertinent observations about the possible insufficiencies of attitudes and responses to art in secular society (though again it is limited by de Botton’s preoccupation with utility). The book is certainly a worthwhile addition to the discussion, even if parts of it (particularly the ‘Education’ chapter) are flawed and uneven.
Ultimately, as an atheist, I am not sure if I can or should make ‘use’ of religion in the way that de Botton suggests. It doesn’t seem like the right starting point, as it neglects the fact that — like all atheists — I already exist in a world sufficed with religious signs, symbols, metaphors and narratives that are impossible to ignore. Religion informs the literature that I read and the art that I value, its history has shaped the political, social and ethical arrangements that I am a part of. Though a non-believer, I still — inevitably — have religious thoughts. We do not ‘use’ religion as atheists, we live with it, and the difficulties we face in doing so require deeper reflection and investigation. The failure of de Botton’s approach is that, in his ever-helpful, well meaning way, he trips over himself trying to offer us solutions before we’ve begun to understand — or even properly discuss — the problems.
— Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion is out now through Hamish Hamilton. RRP $35
Julian Novitz is a New Zealand born writer currently living in Melbourne. His novel Little Sister is due to be published by Random House NZ later this year.