Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
(Pantheon Books, 2012, 320 pages)
Alain de Botton is convinced that religion offers wisdom and truth about human nature, even though he states up front “that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense” (11). Though he is thoroughly atheistic when it comes to dealing with the metaphysical and supernatural claims of religion, de Botton is decidedly opposed to the strident atheistic position that sees religion as a fundamentally harmful phenomenon. Instead, he sees the great world religions as sources of indispensable tools for secular people seeking to live more fulfilled and satisfied lives.
According to de Botton, religion offers helpful advice about the nature of morality and our need for ritual and repetition to help us cultivate virtues. It teaches us lessons about the nature of community and the difficult necessity of living with people who are different from ourselves. It gives us a realistic and workable perspective on the challenges of love and relationships. It gives direction to the creation and appreciation of art and architecture, leading us into an understanding of how experiences of beauty can make us better people. De Botton thinks that secular culture has done a poor job of addressing these issues, and he wants to plunder the goods of religious traditions for the sake of modeling secular alternatives to religious practices. As he puts it, “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone” (312).
This book is full of wise and practical reflections on the nature of relationships, morality, education, suffering, and art. De Botton is an astute student of human nature, and he is happy to pull from any tradition that demonstrates wisdom about how we can best live in the world. Regardless of your views on the existence of God or the afterlife, Religion for Atheists is of immense value. It mines wisdom for living from traditions that non-religious people might otherwise ignore or discount. For those who do have religious faith, it is an excellent guide for reflecting on how they are shaped by their faith. The book does leave me with some questions. Most particularly, I wonder if it is as easy to translate religious practices in secular alternatives as de Botton seems to think it is. However, the fact that it left me with more to think about speaks to the value of the book.