de Botton details some of the customs that organized religion has cultivated over the millenia, and he suggests ways in which secular society could become more sustainable by copying them. He looks at everything from community to architecture. And he also does a pretty good job of criticizing libertarianism while he's at it.
In terms of what allows a society to survive, I found that this book (and its readability) ranked right up there with works by Amitai Etzioni, Robert N. Bellah et al, Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama.
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I'm going to make a suggestion that the best way for an atheist to understand the beauty of a religion is not by reading this book but by reading the primary text of that religion. But I'll admit that it does sometimes require seeing someone with a love for the subject before you can appreciate it yourself. So perhaps Religion for Atheists is useful in that regard. Even so, the textbook formula may address how society can benefit from the ideas of a religion, but it fails to give you that inner understanding of how a religion can be beautiful. For that, you are better off reading The Razor's Edge (Somerset Maugham) or The Life of Pi (Yann Martell). Otherwise, the book is easy to read and comprehensive in the different areas that it inspects.
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The perfect antidote for devout atheists who think Dawkins and Hutchins are kind of dicks but who don't want to get their spiritual advice from Penn Jillette or Ricky Gervais. Finally, a new voice for the non-confrontational atheist who knows very well that religions aren't handed down by some fictitious Sky Man but who also secretly enjoys singing Christmas carols.
For more, please visit my blog, CozyLittleBookJournal!
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
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112 of 126 people found the following review helpful
A good guide for those who don't believe in miracles but cannot agree religion is complete balderdashJan. 30 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Alain de Botton's new book "Religion for Atheists" is a bold attempt to convince atheists, or those who don't believe in the existence of God, that it is possible to derive important lessons from religions around the world without accepting any supernatural claims they might make. Mr. de Botton is unequivocal about his atheistic stance, and frankly says that he doesn't believe in any supernatural being or phenomenon. But this atheistic position that many people probably adopt today, he claims, should not prevent them from appreciating the effective ways religions have provided to meet what he calls the needs of souls that tend all too often to be left unattended in our secularized world but remain none the less existent.
Based on this central principle, he refers to various fields ranging from education to architecture and shows us how religions have traditionally interpreted or dealt with the problems typically associated with those fields. For example, we tend to assume that the purpose of education is to impart valuable information. Hence our puzzlement over a university lecture that focuses exclusively on certain obscure literary works of a foreign thinker who died several thousand years ago, however much importance its lecturer argues they have. This kind of situation happens because of the fact that education has forgotten its original mission: to fill the moral vacuum that was left by the ebbing of the influence of religion. Religions used to teach each of its adherents how to find happiness, how to deal with suffering, and how to become a better, mature person---a kind of therapeutic pedagogy, the need for which remains as strong as ever despite the fact that we are now living in a godless, secular world. Mr. de Botton therefore argues that education, especially in the field of humanities, should ideally provide a reasonable substitute.
Another field that he zeros in on is art. Mr. de Botton complains that the high esteem we hold museums in is made almost useless by our nonsensical prejudice that art should be only for its own sake. Religions have used works of art as important tools of reminding us of those qualities that we understand at heart are important but too often forget or fail to act upon, and have had no qualm about admitting art serves a utilitarian purpose, like that of enhancing our happiness or of healing our souls. This attitude is, according to Mr. de Botton, still relevant today, and should influence ways we appreciate works of art.
These considerations, provocative as they may be, are deeply interesting and thought-provoking. Some of his ideas, however, are more controversial. For instance, in a section on the contrast between libertarianism and paternalism, he says religious paternalism used to help people be better than they would have been left to their own devices, whereas libertarianism, in which people are permitted to do whatever they like as long as they are law abiders, leaves people at a loss for where to seek moral guidance. But it is precisely because one's conviction that s/he has an infallible understanding of what is truly good or bad for humanity brought about tremendous bloodshed that our predecessors decided to enshrine the rights of individual freedom. Even if some aspects of paternalism are indeed appealing, it seems to be difficult to let go of the well-cherished principle that every individual is a sovereign over himself.
Another topic some might find unpalatable is his discussion of The Book of Job, which he claims is one of the most consoling texts for atheists. In this biblical story, Job, a wealthy, happy man, experienced a series of grave misfortunes, lost his children, his wealth and even his health. His neighbors said that he must have sinned and been punished, but he was convinced of his innocence and began to doubt the benevolence of God. At this point God admonished him for his haughtiness. Compared with the vastness of the universe and its mysteries, human beings were petty, insignificant creatures, and as such they had no qualification to fathom God's intentions. After this admonition, Job came to realize the pettiness of human life and the nothingness of his own existence. This story, says Mr. de Botton, helps us, like Job, to realize how small and how insignificant our everyday troubles and sorrows are, in comparison with the grandeur of the universe. But if you notice an analogy between what Job experienced and the tsunami that people in the north eastern part of Japan went through last year, Mr. de Botton's argument becomes less convincing. For how many would agree that those who got indignant at the disaster's unfairness were arrogant for presuming to judge what's fair and unfair? How many would say that the disastrous event, which claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives, reminded people of the smallness of their everyday desires and sufferings and the nothingness of their own existence? Very few, indeed.
Notwithstanding these controversial points, this book as a whole is an interesting attempt to add a new dimension to, and therefore stimulate, the otherwise insipid debates between the religious and the non-religious fundamentalists.
87 of 101 people found the following review helpful
Asking the right questionsFeb. 16 2012
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Format: Kindle Edition
It's refreshing to read a book by an atheist that acknowledges religion isn't a complete waste of time and space and may in fact offer much that enriches human experience and helps us live together nicely (if only we could leave out the ridiculous stories and exploitative hegemonies!).
With deftness, wit, and a wry tone, de Botton explores some of religion's greatest hits, including wisdom, community, kindness, tenderness, perspective, education, architecture, and art. He shows us how effective religion is at what we might call a customer-centric approach to presenting itself and suggests many secular institutions like universities, art galleries, and museums might be much more effective at engaging us with our culture if they borrowed a few tips from the assorted god squads. My favourite is his suggestion that we order human knowledge and learning in easy to grasp thematic ways (stuff about love, loss, marriage etc) rather than the dull, inaccessible academic boffin way (19th century x-ism, early 20th century z-ism etc) we're all so fond of.
What's implied here is that we have a soul (psyche, imagination, heart, whatever) that used to be fed and sustained by religion, a soul that is now starved and in need of sustenance, a soul that needs regular doses of meaning and wisdom so we can make it through the day, a soul we ignore at our peril, a soul that rewards those who care for it, if only we could remember how to do that.
It's not all plain sailing, and some of de Botton's suggestions ring the "yeah, right" bell. But even when his answers are a big wobbly, the questions are smack on the money and must be asked, pondered, and contemplated. So read on, as I did, and dare to imagine how we as a secular society can better meet our great need for a life filled with soul, perhaps with a little help from religion's vast experience.
148 of 176 people found the following review helpful
A good attempt but spare me the priestsMarch 6 2012
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Format: Kindle Edition
OK, so this is the crux of the book's message: While we are materially very well off today, our souls are parched and under-nourished more than ever. Our secular societies haven't been able to provide the kind of soul nourishment that religions used to. So, even though we should dismiss the super-natural elements of religion, its cosmological stories and so on, we should embrace its moral, ethical and its institutional contributions. The author talks about how religion teaches us kindness and tenderness and points out the positive role played by religious art, architecture and institutions in guiding humanity. As the author says, "We are most of us lambs in need of good shepherds ..." and institutionalized religions and its caretakers can act as shepherds guiding us sheep.
I agree with the author on some of the points while I found myself disagreeing with many. I agree that there is nothing but supreme goodness in the teachings of the founders of some religions, say, Jesus and Buddha (though none of these founders claimed to be super-natural beings). I personally start my day by reading notes I've compiled from the writings of the Stoics. I think most reasonable people would agree that Buddha's teachings or the Sermon on the Mount, the message of kindness, compassion, eliminating the vices of pride and wrath, can only help us lead better and richer lives. However, I cannot seem to agree with the completely positive outlook the author seems to have on the institutionalized versions of these religions.
Institutionalized religions took the founder's teachings as the kernel and, after adding a layer of tropes and myths, built around it a mighty organizational and power structure. Granted, they have made many contributions. But, while partaking of these contributions, history has shown that we have also allowed ourselves to be yoked. Sure, institutionalized religions have played a key role in many places in fostering the community (Chapter 2). But one can see examples of strong sense of community and culture even in places where there weren't any mighty religious organizations. For example, ancient Chinese followed the ethics and conduct set forth by Confucius even though he was known to be a mere mortal. If the Catholic church is seen to play a dominant role in certain communities it is because since the dark ages the Church has spread its reach in people's lives and subsumed everything under it in the process of making the early Popes ever more powerful. And we all know that things weren't always so nice and pretty as they seem today. Didn't the institutionalized version of Christianity wreak terror on groups that were closer and truer to Jesus' teachings, example, the Waldensians. Didn't the institutionalized version of Christianity, while providing the poor and suffering with food and salvation, make them fight one another and spill blood over the abstract and bizarre Homoiousianism/Arian controversy. And, how about throwing a spanner in the progress of discovery and science in the 15th century. Here in India, where I'm from, religious leaders and high priests are vote banks for political parties. Once institutionalized (even an innocent sounding secular creed, as the author suggests) everything takes a life of its own.
I agree, some level of guidance is necessary in life. But the author seems to be taking this a bit too far to the point of surrendering one's ability to think on his/her own. For example, we are told (in the chapter on Education) that professors should conduct classes the way preachers do. "How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne's essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after every sentence." Well, what would such a society produce? a bunch of yes-sayers?
I do think the author's intent to cut a new channel of debate is commendable. However, I don't think the solution to our parched and dry souls is to embrace a new secularized organized religion. Instead we should look at the root cause that is making our souls go dry, our loneliness and our estrangement. It may have to do with our pace of life and our separation from nature. Instead of building Agape restaurants in the middle of city concrete jungle and have swinger/release parties once a year, I say, we should plant a giant oak tree, we should consume less, pollute less, breed less, slow down, develop a philosopher's outlook in life and our soul perhaps might 'go green' once again. I don't know if that's going to solve our predicament, but running towards organized religions for answers ain't it for sure. After all, didn't Jesus say, "The kingdom of God is within you."
63 of 75 people found the following review helpful
Inanity to the Max (nicely packaged though)Nov. 7 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
This may be one of the most ineffective theses I've ever read. What Alain de Botton purports to do is explain to atheists why they shouldn't completely poo-poo religion and should instead take the pieces that are useful/good and make use of them in their daily lives... what he does instead is provide chapter after chapter of ways that we should remake society in inane and controlling ways.
To give a few examples of his frustratingly simplistic set-ups and comparisons:
In the first chapter (on community) he claims that nowhere in secular society do we have a chance to mingle and talk with other people in the way that people in a church do. But his examples are terrible: "...the commuter trains, the jostling pavements, the airport concourses...". Are those really the only places you can "typically encounter others"? What about at a conference? Or at a sporting event? Or at a political rally? Or at ANY location where you're not trying to get from one point to the other as you are in his examples...
In the section on education he makes a number of overblown statements about how we forget everything we learn in college because it's not repeated over and over and over and because it's not done in a call and response manner the way some sermons are. He goes on to generalize and call all professors boring while claiming that all preachers/pastors/priests are the most exciting speakers on the planet.
This is the kind of language he uses: "Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers."
He then describes his ideal universities and museums where we don't learn about things in terms of their historical value but instead only learn about them based on how they affect the human condition.
In the section on Institutions he compares the annual revenue in dollars brought in by the Catholic Church, Proctor and Gamble and... James Patterson... in order to make the point that books just don't get to people the way that established institutions like churches and corporations can. But this is like comparing the revenue from Microsoft and a single iPhone app and then saying that this proves that Apple doesn't matter. Why not throw in a publishing company if we're comparing corporations? His whole point is that an established "brand" provides a shortcut for getting the word out, but that's exactly why most authors are published by publishing companies and not self-published. Oddly enough he then goes on to say that universities are a good example of how well this model works, even though in his very first chapter he complained that universities are completely broken.
These are just a few small examples that really stuck out to me but the entire book is filled with these types of arguments. I wanted to like this book as I really though the premise sounded great but de Botton doesn't actually do what he says he'll do. Instead he just lists ways that religious structure is awesome and derides "secular" society... which really turns out to be "modern" society given how much time he spends decrying all the technology we currently use.
This is basically a poorly written screed against contemporary society dressed up with a cool title and fancy packaging (all the pictures are nice and make you feel like you're reading a much longer book than you are). I don't really see who the audience for this book is - clearly not the religious... but I can't see what the non-religious get out of it either.
95 of 116 people found the following review helpful
Bad psychology. Bad reasoning. Disappointing.March 21 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
There are two points I want to make about this book.
First point: The second chapter is called "Community". The third part of chapter two is called "our hatred of community." In it, the author is arguing for the need for celebrations where the people can abandon the mores of society. He talks about the Feast of Fools as a religious example of a celebration of hedonism that helps us remain morally upright the rest of the year. He then proposes that secularism needs to adopt religion's wisdom and have the same thing. Up to this point in the book, the author had been developing a concept of an "Agape Restaurant", a secular facility and community using his ideas of blending secular and religious concepts. Earlier in the book he had shown a picture of what an Agape Restaurant would look like during a ritualized meal.
On page 66 of my edition, he shows a picture of an Agape Restaurant during one his proposed "yearly moments of release." The picture is a very realistic scene of an orgy. Center in the picture is a man and woman engaged in oral sex and another couple with the woman bent over a table.
At the least, this is in poor taste, and readers with more sensitive dispositions than mine probably should be warned. For my purposes, it highlights what I view as a fatal flaw in the author's position. It's simply not true that living in a community of morally upright people is so onerous that people in the community need to have an annual session of sex and alcohol in order to be able to be happy and to make the community work. Most of us are not people that have all sorts of dark motives that "build up" over time and need to release or we pop like over-inflated balloons. Well-ordered communities are not straightjackets that are difficult to live with, and even if they were, the idea that a good group sex session would make things better is just stupid. There are lots of occasions throughout the year where people let loose and have a good time. We do it because it is fun; not because if we didn't get to celebrate on New Year's eve the fabric of society would break down.
Overall, this is an example of what I see as the author's poor understanding of what really makes society and people work. The book is full of overly simplified thinking about the psychology of groups and individuals.
The author then compounds the problem by trying to give overly specific and unrealistic suggestions of how to implement his ideas. His Agape Restaurant is a case in point. Rather than tell atheists and secularists that they need to pay attention to the importance of communities, he tells them they need to create a restaurant with a rule book on how long each person is allowed to speak and what topics they should talk about. It's too specific. It's too impractical. It fails to understand that the reason some similar rituals work in a religious context is that they have had hundreds of years to let the rituals evolve over time.
Second point: I find the author shockingly ignorant of what most modern atheists regard as the failings of religion.
The premise of the book is that the modern atheist movement, as exemplified by the Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins crowd, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they expound their views of how the world should work. That's actually a very interesting premise. Starting from that assumption, I would have assumed the author would at least come at the topic with some acknowledgement or understanding of the modern atheist perspective. Skipping the chapter on community since I already talked about that, consider the chapter titled "Kindness". In it, the author bemoans the fact that "once we are grown up, we are seldom encouraged officially to be nice to one another." The next couple of paragraphs then go on to talk about government before launching into a discussion about how religion does this better than government does.
Um, really? First flaw: most of us don't need regular reminders to be good in order to know not to steal. Second flaw: government and religion are not the only teachers of morality. Third flaw: we are inundated by reminders to be good. Nearly all fiction in movies, TV, and books contains descriptions of morality and stories about the consequences of failures to live up to moral standards. (Imagine a bad TV drama: Johnny cheated on Sally with Amy, and now everyone is sad and angry and the Johnny and Sally break up and everyone thinks Amy is a slut. This is a reminder to be faithful complete with warnings about the consequences.) Add to that everything from speed limit signs to HR manuals at work, and you realize we are bathed in reminders of what proper conduct looks like. Sunday's sermon in church is only one more such message.
My point is that the author's position stated at the beginning of the chapter, "...we are seldom encouraged officially to be nice..." is simply shallow thinking. He then develops the idea using a sort of low-grade analysis of libertarian political thought. Bad thinking and bad argumentation is not interesting.
Even worse is that fact that in the introduction, the author says his audience is atheists. He directly states his book is a contrary view to the more strident Harris/Dawkins flavor of atheism. The Harris/Dawkins view is very clear - religion is counterproductive to encouraging kindness. We are inherently kind to others because we are a social species, not because we are constantly reminded to be nice. In order for the author's position to be effective with his target audience, he needs to at least address the more common atheist view. Instead, he assumes the reader will simply agree that religion is a source of morality when the Harris/Dawkins brand of atheist he is writing to will have a conniption fit at the very idea. In that view, religion is NOT a source of morality in society; it is a reflection of morality that is already present in society.
My conclusion is that the author is simply ignorant of the modern Harris/Dawkins thinking on the subject. The author therefore fails at one of the first rules of writing: know your audience.
As a final observation - nearly half the pages of this already short book are pictures. Not pretty color pictures - black and white pictures. For a book that should be mostly about ideas, this is a bad sign.
My advice is to pass this book by. It's not worth your time.