Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists (2012) by Alain de Botton is an interesting but flawed book that looks at what religion provides for people that secular society does not do as well. de Botton also puts forward a vision for secular institutions to perform these functions. It’s a thought provoking work that makes many good points but that has been let down by some of the ideas not being more thoroughly thought Botton has a style, his books cover the application of serious philosophical and intellectual ideas and apply them to everyday life, he breaks his books into themed chapters and puts pictures throughout the book. They are ideal items for dinner party discussion. But there is an ease and simplicity to them that almost suggests that de Botton might one day come out and laugh at anyone who has read his books and say that he was just exploiting middle class vanity and writing pretend serious books for pretend intellectuals.

In Religion for Atheists de Botton the chapters are on: Wisdom without doctrine, Community, Kindness, Education, Tenderness, Pessimism, Perspective, Art, Architecture and Institutions.

The first three chapters on wisdom without doctrine, Community and Kindness are really very good. de Botton first describes his book and how secular society has lost something. In the chapter on Community de Botton does very well discussing how religion builds community. When discussing Kindness again the book points out just how well religion can inspire compassion. But the book looses its way in the education chapter. de Botton makes the point that in religious education education was given a direction and a point. He fails to note the weaknesses of religious education and the indoctrination that was inherent in it. The length of the education section, at some 66 pages compared to most of the other chapters at about half that also shows de Botton starts going somewhere peculiar in this chapter.

The chapters on Tenderness and Pessimism are better with de Botton finding firmer ground for his assertions. The chapters on Perspective makes a good point that religion shows people that they are a very small part of the universe. The chapters on Art and Architecture are weak. The book would have been better off without them. In the final chapter de Botton describes the sort of organisation he would like and discusses Auguste Comte’s attempt to create something similar.

The books strong points, that religion builds communities, that it can bring out the better side of humanity and that it has inspired, comforted and given good advice to people are very valuable coming from an atheist author. The book is far better than much of the silly, angry atheist books that have done well in recent years. But by overstating the case and not looking at the weaknesses of religious constructions the book makes a weaker case than it could have.


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