Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists has a simple, reasonable, open-minded premise: whether or not you believe in God/Jesus/Heaven/afterlife/salvation/etc., religions can still be interesting, useful, and consoling. The idea here is to explore function rather than truth. Religious institutions are some of the most successful, influential, widespread, long-lived things that humans have ever done, so there’s a lot to learn.
There’s the idea of community, for one. “Religions know a great deal about loneliness” de Botton writes. And if you’ve been to mass with any frequency, you know how often things like poverty, sadness, failure, and loss come up—because the church “sees the ill, frail of mind, desperate, and elderly as aspects of humanity and ourselves that we’re tempted to deny.” But acknowledging these things can bring us closer, or at least make us more humble.
De Botton talks about this sort of groundedness again later. There’s an earthly pessimism that comes with some religious belief. Hopes are ascribed to the next life, not this one. For this one you just try to do right, be generous, and get by as best you can. This pessimism deflates our hopes a bit, but helps to balance those needy, absorptive, consuming, ever-optimistic desires that come in everyday life. Christianity is sober, where perhaps the secular world is too optimistic, or maybe too cowardly, to face life’s hard facts. I like this line where de Botton summarizes all secular arguments:
Why can’t you be more perfect?
Luckily, “sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost.” We need teaching, and religion’s insistence on that is pretty useful.
Christianity concerns itself with the inner confused side of us, declaring that none of us are born knowing how to live; we are fragile, capricious, unempathetic, and beset by fantasies of omnipotence.
The ever-seeking nature of secularism can also lead to lack of gratitude. Religions bring us back to the basics. A prayer of gratitude before you eat. Marking the passing of the hours with prayer or the seasons or harvests with celebrations. We need reminders of the transcendent, of our smallness. We need rituals and practices that put us in our place.
Art could do this, perhaps—“We need art because we are so forgetful”. De Botton has a great section on the opportunities that modern museum culture misses out on.
We tend to enter galleries with grave, though by necessity discreet doubts about what we are meant to do in them. […] It would take a brave soul to raise a hand.
Museums have a hard time explaining why they’re valuable. Education, sure. They’re not made for prayer or worship, really. We end up with buildings about history of art-ness. But what about something more ambitious? There’s an opportunity to meet our own psychological, emotional needs. We see placards on the walls about style and era and medium and influence. But just like churches aren’t made to teach us about the history of theology, necessarily, museums need not teach us about art history (exclusively). Why don’t we see an exhibition about Death? Or Parenting? Loss? Courage?
De Botton makes similar arguments about secular education, which is fairly impractical. Things like accounting and psychology are useful, yes, but where are the classes about tensions in marriage, or dying gracefully, or the struggles of friendship? (Of course, a philosopher would argue for these things, of course.)
Topics aside, there’s also the structure and etiquette of the modern class to consider. Lector, desks, students, whiteboard. Boring. Contrast with a vibrant church where the attendees are shouting “Amen” and “Preach on!” and “Thank you, Jesus.” You can’t underestimate the value of rapture and assent and an active audience. Teaching is a kind of performance, too.
What purpose can possibly be served by the academy’s primness? 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 ever sentence.
There’s also the idea that religious education isn’t, well… it’s not all that new. But the lack of novelty is a blessing in its own way. It makes room for reflection. The church hasn’t had big discoveries or breakthroughs. But it does a fantastic job for structure, schedules, repetition, and reinforcement of its long-held ideas.
A Catholic lectionary, for example, outlines everything you’ll be reading over the course of three years, with readings matched to season and occasion in the church calendar. If you’re devout and interested, there’s a plan there for you to follow. Even if you’re a casual but regular churchgoer, you’re going to cover a lot of material, and it’ll be appropriate to the season. But what’s the best way and context for me to revisit Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations? Is there a good calendar for reflecting on Leaves of Grass, if that’s your thing? How can you carve out a space for secular reflection in your life? It’s not just a scheduling thing. It’s knowing what to do when the time comes. Church attendance is a kind of rehearsal for life outside its doors, and inside its doors you know exactly what’s going to happen.
Another favorite passage:
An absence of religious belief in no way invalidates a continuing need for “patron saints” of qualities like Courage, Friendship, Fidelity, Patience, Confidence, or Skepticism. We can still profit from moments when we give space to voices of the more balanced, brave, generous–and through whom we may reconnect with our most dignified and serious possibilities.
Again, whether or not Mary gave virgin birth, or whether or not Jesus was also God, or whether or not Saint So-and-so really bled from her hands and levitated? Make your own call. The truth is secondary to De Botton’s argument. The function of these beliefs is to get you to be a better person.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012 so far. Very highly recommended.