I have finally found a book that will sit next to my copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. In this disjointed age of angry Fundamentalists and even angrier atheists, where people bowl alone and don’t sleep well, Alain de Botton has shined a ray of hope. Well, pessimistic hope, but still, I felt more invigorated by Religion for Atheists than I have by a book for a long time (search my category “books” and you’ll see what I mean). Raised as an atheist, de Botton doesn’t share the rabid fury that converted atheists often exhibit. More importantly, he recognizes that, despite its supernatural teachings, religion got a lot of things right. Basic issues such as kindness and compassion have little place in a society that is built around acquiring as much for yourself as you can. Even his chapter on pessimism rang true.
Subtitled A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, some might consider the book opportunistic, but de Botton approaches religion from a purely practical and openminded angle: it often works. Religion supports (or supported) education. Numerically most of our colleges and universities in the United States have (or had) religious beginnings or affiliations. Religions also supported beauty in art, architecture, and liturgy. The religious culture provided places to meet others who thought like you, and where you felt safe. It was not afraid to be blunt about values. Many would dispute these positives, tending instead to focus on suicide bombers and child abusers. No doubt these evils also exist, and probably draw their inspiration from skewed religious views. Still, as a sincere outsider can see, religion offers much that society has no backups in mind to replace in this secular age.
In a pointed discussion of influence, de Botton mentions the power of institutions. Secular society has demonstrated repeatedly that it lacks the will to finance higher education. Secularists are terrible at organizing themselves. Reading de Botton’s suggestions for secular institutions, I almost rose from my bus seat and applauded. If Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos would put up the money for an institution on de Botton’s model, I’d be first in line to apply for a place in the Non-Religion Department. (A disclaimer here—although I met Jeff Bazos once, I can’t pretend to know his or Bill Gates’s religious outlooks; I only recognize success when I see it.) In any case, until we learn that one voice alone—no matter how many books s/he sells—cannot change anything substantial, we will be mired in impotence. To influence social change you need the combined resources of an institution. And, choose to like it or not, history tells us that in the long run the most successful institutions have been formed by religions. Alain de Botton has, I believe, given us something to believe.