Religion for Atheists

March 31, 2012

I’m glad I came to Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists at a somewhat slow time.  I don’t know that I would have had the patience for it otherwise, and alongside some parts I took issue with, there were some good ideas. Mostly, I have quotations to share and discuss:

“Much of modern moral thought has been transfixed by the idea that a collapse in belief must have irreparably damaged our capacity to build a convincing ethical framework for ourselves. But this argument, while apparently atheistic in nature, owes a strange, unwarranted debt to a religious mindset–for only if we truly believed at some level that God had once existed, and that the foundations of morality were therefore in their essence supernatural, would the recognition  of his present non-existence have any power to shake our moral principles.” (79)  I think de Botton is mistaken in calling this argument “apparently atheistic.” None of the atheists I know would make such an argument, and all live according to a convincing ethical framework. Most would agree with Christopher Hitchens that it takes a pretty low view of humanity to believe the only thing keeping us from mistreating each other is our belief in God.

“In the secular sphere, we may well be reading the right books, but we too often fail to ask direct questions of them…We are fatefully in love with ambiguity, uncritical of the Modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.” (119)  I think we mean postmodern, here, don’t we? He’s talking about books, so for me Modernist means D.H. Lawrence, maybe edging back to Conrad, and while those authors, to name two, may be concerned with issues of moral complexity, complexity isn’t the same thing as ambiguity. And even ambiguity of meaning doesn’t mean the same thing as having ‘no moral content’.  I think most serious students of literature, even the postmodern, recognize works’ desire to change their audience.

de Botton goes into some detail on his feelings about books as revered artifacts, and the importance of revisiting important texts on a regular basis, the same way religions make use of guided study. I only take issue with the idea that religious communities are the only groups that work with texts this way.


And some passages I found interesting and helpful:

“Because the ego is inherently vulnerable, its predominant mood is one of anxiety…Even under the most auspicious of contexts, it is never far from a relentless, throbbing drumbeat of worry, which conspires to prevent it from sincere involvement with anything outside of itself. And yet the ego also has a touching tendency constantly to trust that its desires are about to be fulfilled. Images of tranquility and security haunt it: a particular job, social conquest or material acquisition always seems to hold out the promise of an end to craving.” (148-150)

“It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude: we no longer offer up thanks for harvests, meals, bees or clement weather. On a superficial level, we might suppose that this is because there is no one to say ‘Thank you’ to. But at base it seems more a matter of ambition and expectation. Many of those blessings for which our pious and pessimistic ancestors offered thanks, we now pride ourselves on having worked hard enough to take for granted.” (188)

“Christianity also knows that any pain is aggravated by the sense that we are alone in experiencing it. However, we are as a rule not very skilled at communicating the texture of our troubles to others, or at sensing the sorrows they themselves are hiding behind stoic facades. We are therefore in need of art to help us to understand our own neglected hurt, to grasp everything that does not come up in casual conversation and to coax us out of an unproductively isolated relationship with our most despised and awkward qualities.” (221)

“It may be that we are asking too much of our own secular artists, requiring them not only to impress our senses but also to be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights. Our artistic scene might benefit from greater collaborations between thinkers and makers of images, a marriage of the best ideas with their highest expressions.” (239)

“There is a devilishly direct relationship between the significance of an idea and how nervous we become at the prospect of having to think about it.” (267)