A Review: Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton

I’ve always said about my feelings towards religion, spirituality and the existence of God, that I don’t believe in him or an afterlife but I reserve the right to change my mind if proved wrong. This is why I think I was drawn to Alain de Botton’s book on Religion for Atheists, I mean, just the title of the book is surely controversial enough for you to be red flagged by the FBI? And what a conversation starter if it happened to be left, in sight of your dinner guests on the coffee table, as you were about to have cocktails? But back to the book. Alain de Botton is asking basically, what if religions are neither completely true or completely rubbish? What if they have a little bit of truth in them and we can literally pick out what we like to serve as a kind or mantra or set of rules, in which we live our lives? Alain de Botton believes that the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false, but, we can still learn from religions as they still have some very important things to teach us. Rather than wasting our time trying endlessly to prove an entities existence or mocking religions, all agnostics and atheists should instead steal their ideas from them. Why? Because they are packed with great commonsense ideas on how we should be living and how our societies could be arranged.

If you look deeply into what religions try and teach us, it is to look out for your fellow man, to forgive and turn the other cheek, not to covet what your neighbour has but to be happy with your lot. There are so many great ideas within religion that isn’t it a shame that just because they are hidden under ‘religion’s umbrella’, we cannot see them for what they are? Deep respect with total impiety. Alain de Botton (himself a non-believer) says that we really ought to look to religions for insights into how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, get more out of art, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, and much more. So if you happen to be like Alain and myself – an atheist or agnostic, you would have had to have made a choice between forgoing all the beautiful rituals and celebrations, including weddings, christenings etc, or having to put up with so called ‘nonsense’ from a dated book. Now it seems, you really don’t have to! You can pick and choose if you like and why not?

Alain de Botton put forward some of his ideas at the Independent Bath Festival of Literature. Here he spoke about the “sterile stand-off between religious people who think atheists are going to hell, and atheists who think religious people are stupid.” Those that have read his books before may already know him as an atheist but just to clear matters up he stated for the record, “I don’t think God exists. There. You can leave now if you want.” It was also clear to anyone listening that he believes that religion can bring important things to society as a whole; for instance, he said religions could be regarded as works of culture and if drawn from selectively, could enlighten, teach and console us, just as we draw on different writers for enlightenment or entertainment. He went on to describe how religion deals in things that our culture typically chooses to ignore, such as how to live a fulfilling life, how to die, how to have a good life. Summing up, he concluded that religions were not just about ideas, but dealt in “a total integration of the needs of the human body”. At the lecture in Bath however, the audiences were not satisfied and wanted to know what his thoughts were on Richard Dawkins. Relenting finally he said, “Dawkins has a done a great job, but he’s become intolerant and so have his supporters… The subtitle to Christopher Hitchens’ book is ‘Why religion poisons everything’. I find that level of intolerance distressing and unnecessary.” I’m inclined to agree.