Religion for Atheists #

Religion by Atheists is a book by Alain de Botton that I read July 2019. It’s an interesting book, one that I would definitely recommend for the curious atheist or humanist who is trying to live a better life.

The book takes a very different approach than other famous atheist treatises (The God Delusion, God is Not Great, The End of Faith): instead of being combative and attacking religion, or arguing against its central tenets, Religion for Atheists takes a broad look at the features of three major world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism) which may perhaps be isolated from their religious origins and adopted into a secular worldview.

I like this idea, or at least I warmed to it while I read the book. I have a pretty hostile attitude towards religion; Hitchens is probably the closest to my thinking: a keen skepticism about the motivations, reasons and benefits of religion in all its forms. I am acutely aware of the damage religious indoctrination can do to society, and to humankind’s ability and desire to think for itself. I am distrustful of religion having seen its fingerprints all over the nastier parts of history, and sick of its hypocrisy in trying simultaneously to act as a communal moral compass.

But obviously not all individual religious people suffer from the same misintentions as the institution to which they belong, possibly through choice or possibly through circumstance. And these billions of people find all sorts of value, daily and throughout their life, from their particular religion. How can atheists dismiss all of this, and what do they propose to replace it with?

de Botton’s approach is familiar to the religious world: he proposes the secular world steal ideas and adopt them as its own. Just as there is a clear Ancient Greek influence on Christian scholarship and theology, atheists can appreciate the value of philosophers providing visual artists with inspiration and subjects to paint.

The best parts of the book ask more difficult questions, like how to adopt religious approaches to grief, suffering and loss to the secular world. These are the biggest questions the atheist worldview struggles to find answers to. I would say that the answers provided by religion are deeply unsatisfying and impossible to accept, but for many people this is not the case, and that is what actually matters. Belief in an afterlife, and a human soul, provides daily solace and eases the suffering of millions of people across the world. What can an atheist turn to when his wife dies, or he is diagnosed with a terminal disease?

I would hope atheists take a leaf from this book before considering a deathbed conversion (as an aside, I was reading yesterday that the mathematician and computer scientist John Von Neumann who worked on the Manhattan Project was suspected of a deathbed conversion: found this very surprising). Religion answers the question of loss and grief with perspective: this is not really the end of your life, just the end of a phase of it. Keep that wider perspective in mind throughout your life, continually return to it, and it becomes part of how you deal with hardship. The atheist’s tools for perspective are different, but no less fit. He can turn to gratitude for everything he has, for an appreciation of nature and science and the intensely complicated beauty of life when it does exist. He can look to the stars and be reminded of his size, and look inward to his mind and be reminded of the same.

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