Author ventures beyond orthodox atheism ideals

A prominent atheist author has challenged atheists to imitate purposefully the strengths of religions, notes Ian Harris.

Fancy the sizzle of a sausage, but not the sausage itself?

Or a soak in warm bathwater, but not if you have to get into the tub?

If so, you'll be attracted to the latest book by English author Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists. He thinks he has found a way to offer his fellow atheists the sizzle and the soak - all the savoury and restorative benefits of religion - while rejecting the substance and context of religion itself.

He is spurred to do so because he diagnoses an emptiness at the heart of modern living, an emptiness that religion once filled. His remedy: atheists should identify where religions have succeeded in meeting human needs and aspirations over the centuries, then reproduce these features in ways they can approve of, without recourse to God or the supernatural. After all, he says, Christianity was able to take the pagan festivals of spring and midwinter and transform them into Easter and Christmas.

Why shouldn't atheists reverse the process and turn them back into non-religious festivals?

All the sizzle, no sausage! The idea is not new, but full marks to de Botton for venturing far enough beyond the orthodoxy of fundamentalist atheism to discern that religions also have their good points.

The militant atheist wing has responded with outrage, swooping on him with all the derision they usually reserve for religion. Atheism is apparently too sacred a cause to tolerate infidels who betray the creed that religion is by its very nature beyond redemption.

But de Botton holds his ground.

Life-long atheist though he is, he cannot blind himself to the many positive contributions he sees religions as making to human existence.

"The wisdom of the faiths," he says, "belongs to all mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural's greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone."

To illustrate his theme, de Botton draws on Christianity, Judaism and Zen Buddhism to commend the way in which, for example, they foster a sense of community. Within their religious spaces they uphold a different set of values from those that permeate the go-getting secularist world.

In their worship, differences of age, status, income, race, class, nationality, education and, increasingly, sex and sexual orientation, fall away as the worshippers focus together on God and mystery, and on their shared humanity before God.

The communal rituals of religion purge, celebrate and renew the common life. Festivals heighten these experiences. The Day of Atonement, he says, gives Jews a recurring opportunity to review their actions over the preceding year, identify people they have offended or behaved unjustly towards, and say sorry.

The religions extol virtues such as kindness and tenderness as elements of a moral framework guiding all human behaviour.

They provide role models in their scriptures and their histories: the heroes, saints and martyrs.

"A well-functioning secular society would think with care about its role models," de Botton says.

"It would not only provide us with film stars and singers." Or, closer to home, rugby players.

The religions also do well in educating their adherents in a systematic and recurring way.

Readings, rituals, calendars, music, spiritual exercises and retreats keep people focused on their faith's perspective on life.

Religions have evolved to meet the needs of the human psyche, with all its hopes, anxieties and vulnerability. They are not blind to the darker side of human existence. They offer a perspective beyond the limitations of the daily grind.

They nurture wisdom.

De Botton challenges atheists to imitate them purposefully: "So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate the inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives."

The arts and culture have a role to play, he says - but not in a moral no-man's-land. Curators might learn from Christianity by insisting that galleries and museums, for example, "use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise".

Church architecture has been used to express Christian views of life and faith, and de Botton speculates wistfully on possible atheist equivalents: temples to spring, and to kindness, reflection, forgiveness, perspective, self-knowledge, whatever.

After all those compliments to the positive potential of religion in ordinary life, distilling it down to a list of abstract nouns is disappointing. They don't do justice even to the sizzle, let alone the sausage. On that, more next time.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator


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