Reflections on Alain de Botton’s, “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion argues that religion is untrue, yet useful. Religious belief may be nonsense, but it’s useful nonsense. 

He begins by claiming that religion was not handed down from on high, miracles are myth, and the gods are illusory. He doesn’t believe that his educated readers could possibly believe in ghosts in the sky. Yet if you expect de Botton to mimic traditional critics of religion—Nietzsche, Freud, Feuerbach—or modern ones—Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens— you will be disappointed. Instead, he finds some value in religious rituals, pedagogy, and traditions, which help people build community, be moral, and endure pain. Secularists would be wise to use these elements of religious traditions to build a secular religion.

We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves … who want to lead the sort of life which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us.

Specific proposals range from restaurants where strangers would share feelings, to museums organized by themes to aid us in contemplating the profound, to university lecturers adopting the style of Pentecostal preachers. Universities, like so many secular institutions, disseminate information but don’t impart wisdom. (In response, De Botton founded the “School of Life.“)

De Botton is right when he says that religion is false. His claim that it is useful may be partially true, but it is unclear whether this is a good thing. Sure, many people get their morality, community, and comfort from religious practices, but Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan get theirs from group practices too. Lest one bristle at the comparison, religions have much blood on their hands. The point is that useful is not the same as beneficial—alcohol is useful to alcoholics as are guns to psychopaths.

In fairness to de Botton, he believes that only some religious practices are beneficial. Still, the same can be said of almost any practice—beating one’s wife may sometimes be beneficial, perhaps she’ll respond to her beating by saying “thanks I needed that.” The question is whether a practice is generally beneficial, whether it causes more harm than good. Needless to say, many thinkers have found the claim that religious practices cause more harm than good to be true. Count me among them.

There is also the question of whether the rituals and traditions can be adopted by secularists, or whether they will retain their power when stripped of religious superstitions. Now if a religious practice passes the test of scientific respectability, meditation for instance, then by all means employ it. But if gathering in large groups promotes community but bigotry and hatred as well, then I’m not so sure. Applying such tests, the only remnants of religious traditions left will be the few that are scientifically respectable. In that case, the best way to proceed in the search for meaning would be continued investigations into the field of positive psychology, happiness studies, and other scientific studies of how people can live happier and more meaningful lives. That de Botton does not discuss this is an oversight.

In my view, William James offered the best defense of religion with his pragmatic argument in “The Will to Believe.” As long as religious beliefs and practices work for us, why not believe and practice them? Ideas, as he said, are to be judged by their “cash value.” The problem is that this allows us to believe and practice whatever we want. The history of religious war, cruelty, and torture testify to the problems with doing so. In the end, scientific studies of human nature are the key to understanding what is beneficial to society, and all of us, religious and non-religious alike, would be best served to heed their advice.

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