Alain de Botton proposes applying what has worked for religions to a more appealing atheism, in his book Religion for Atheists. He admits that a coherent theory will not be done in a single, short volume such as he has written. But while de Botton offers intriguing individual proposals, there remains some serious shortcomings for the overall project.
A recent issue of New Scientist (“The God Issue”) examined the science of religion. De Botton himself provides an interview. What I found more convincing was the article, “Born believers”, which explained the role of “agency reasoning”, i.e. what we observe that we do not directly control — the difference between us kicking a ball and watching a bird fly overhead.
That argument is that from a young age we are receptive to explanations that invoke design or purpose, as author Justin Barrett says.
Giving de Botton the benefit of the doubt, he does apply this towards a selection of themes: community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions.
While interesting to learn de Botton’s various suggestions, such as a communal orgy named “a yearly moment of release”, for much of the first half of the book I didn’t feel a common thread running through his secular offerings. As Barrett might put it, would these satisfy a sufficient number of atheists who were honest with themselves about our societal hard-wiring for a sense of greater purpose? (For me, for the longer run I’ll take a companionship of love than an annual one-night stand.)
De Botton’s chapter on institutions was the best, and really gets to the point. Religions have long known that they fulfill inherent needs in many people’s lives, and they have organised themselves accordingly. (I loved the graphic comparing the annual revenue of the Catholic Church ($97 billion) with consumer goods company Procter and Gamble ($78 billion).)
I would like to see an even more detailed version of de Botton’s proposal to create a global brand of psychotherapy (“Talkingcure…”), i.e. a supporting system of institutions to foster and protect our emotions (p. 298).
De Botton provides us with a review of the life and work of Auguste Comte, culminating with Comte’s proposal for a Religion of Humanity, with its own priests and secular saints. This is an intriguing take on the theory of the perfection of man, but alas one with some big shortcomings.
That is, as de Botton points out in the previous chapter, an institution provides an authority and status higher than you can achieve on your own, or at least the potential to be more enduring than your solitary efforts. At a wider, societal level, this evokes sociology (a word not mentioned once in the book). Even my limited knowledge of sociology includes the role of ecclesiastical guardians, those entrusted with the spiritual and sacred traditions of that society.
That trust is established over many generations. And if you’re going to rip it up and replace it with a form of Marxist-Leninist atheism, then you better be good at putting in place those structures, physical and emotional, that can endure for the long hall. Soviet communism wasn’t good at this; Chinese communism is being more clever, with its retention of its religious traditions.
And so the challenge of Comte’s scheme for religion. How hard it will be to establish a set of secular traditions that satisfy our innate expectation of a purpose for life, supported by people and institutions that you want to know will last beyond the end of your own journey.
It’s a big ask. Religion will remain. And as de Botton puts it, atheists might as well get used to it and appropriate it however they can for their own survival.