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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion - Alain De Botton This book is written by an atheist for atheists. The author bases his comments on the premise that supernatural claims of religion are false, but that religion still has many things to teach the secular world.

The author, de Botton, in the book’s introduction recounts that he grew up in a atheistic family environment. I suspect that gives him the freedom to study the merits of religion free from a personal history of rejecting childhood religious teachings. He thus is perhaps able to objectively search the field of religion for insights into how they can build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome envy, survive feelings of inadequacy, and reconnect with the natural world.

The following chapter titles indicate the areas of human endeavor that the book examines: 1. Wisdom without Doctrine, 2. Community, 3. Kindness, 4. Education, 5. Tenderness, 6. Pessimism, 7. Perspective, 8. Art, 9. Architecture, and 10. Institutions. This book comes across much as an extended essay that is probably not all that convincing to dedicated atheists. However, those readers who truely appreciate the merits of poetry, music, art, literature, and study of history will be the individuals most likely to comprehend the message of this book. That is because those are the people who can appreciate the ways that the liberal and fine arts along with religion can enhance the human experience even though they do not sustain corporeal life in a direct tangible way.

Interestingly, and unbelievably, this book has many photographs scattered amongst the text. I'd guess there are about a hundred different photos. I think the author is trying to stimulate the reader to ponder beyond the text. In other words, read between the lines.

Below are some quotations from the book that caught my attention:
"We learn from religion not only about the charms of community. We learn also that a good community accepts just how much there is in us that doesn’t really want community ..." (p66)

“Christianity is focused on helping a part of us that secular language struggles even to name, which is not precisely intelligence or emotion, not character or personality, but another, even more abstract entity loosely connected with all of those and yet differentiated from them by an additional ethical and transcendent dimension--and to which we may as well refer, following Christian terminology, as the soul.” (p113)

“The secular are at this moment in history a great deal more optimistic than the religious, a something of an irony given the frequency with which the later have been derided by the former for their apparent naivety and credulousness. It is the secular who’s longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research with no evident awareness of the contradiction they may in the same breath gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, silicone valley, and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind.” (p183)

“A pessimistic world view does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by their modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizons. Modern secular optimists on the other hand with their well developed sense of entitlement generally fail to savor any epiphanies of everyday life as they busy themselves with the construction of earthly paradise.” (p188)

“It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude." (p188)

"For atheists one of the most consoling texts of the Old Testament should be the book of Job which concerns itself with the theme of why bad things happen to good people. A question to which entreatingly it refuses to offer up simple faith based answers. Instead it suggests that it is not for us to know why events occur in the way they do. That we should not always interpret pain as punishment, and that we should recall that we live in a universe riddled with mysteries of which the vagaries and our fortunes are certainly not the largest or even ... among the most important.” (p196)

"Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place." (p200)
The following is the author's own description of the purpose of this book:
"It has been the purpose of this book to identify some of the lessons we might retrieve from religions: how to generate feelings of community, how to promote kindness, how to cancel out the current bias towards commercial values in advertising, how to select and make use of secular saints, how to rethink the strategies of universities and our approach to cultural education, how to redesign hotels and spas, how better to acknowledge our own childlike needs, how to surrender some of our counterproductive optimism, how to achieve perspective through the sublime and the transcendent, how to reorganize museums, how to use architecture to enshrine values -- and, finally, how to coalesce the scattered efforts of individuals interested in the care of souls and organize them under the aegis of institutions.(p311)

The following quotations are not from this book. Nevertheless I include them here because they speak to the same subject.
“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. ” (Voltaire)

“I think religion is so much more than belief in God. It is about community, it’s about being moved by certain historical narratives, it’s about self identity within the group, it’s a place to bring your existential dilemmas. Although I reject a belief in God I accept the many impulses that bring people to a religious community.” (Rebecca Goldstein, author of the book, 36 Reasons for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction , spoken on the “Here and Now” radio program on 4/22/10)