Book Review

"Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion" by Alain de Botton

C. R. Wiley
Alain de Botton
Monday, July 2nd 2012
Jul/Aug 2012

When I learned that Alain de Botton had written a book with the title Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, I thought: "Why, of course he has."

I was introduced to de Botton through The Architecture of Happiness‘a book that really is about how architecture can make us happy. Since then, I've read all his books. And even though he never wears his atheism on his sleeve, one of those books’The Consolations of Philosophy (a nod toward Boethius)’did tip his hand. When four out of six of the philosophers highlighted are Epicurus, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, you have declared yourself.

The New Atheists declaim with much spittle that religion is a bad thing, and even some evangelicals wring their hands and insist that Christianity is not actually a religion at all. We are informed that what looks like a religion is really nothing more than being on good terms with Jesus. De Botton thinks this is all sadly misguided. Religion is not all that bad’it has just taken up some bad ideas. And when it comes to "Christianity is not a religion," de Botton would gladly take our religion off our hands if we could truly get Christ out of it.

De Botton's book begins with the surprising concession (replete with examples) that contemporary atheism wants for wisdom. Its art is ugly, its commerce degrading, its educational methodology too cerebral, its politics too libertarian and too optimistic, and its psychology too sunny. But although religion may be encumbered with a lot of superstitious nonsense, when it comes to the stuff of life it is clear-eyed and realistic about human nature.

Recognizing the need to reassure his fellow travelers before beginning, de Botton starts with a pillory of religion in a chapter titled "Wisdom without Doctrine." Mercifully, further sermons to the choir are few and far between. Unfortunately, after the obligatory harangue, the book manages to mix much secular silliness in with the religious wisdom. The silliness comes in the form of de Botton's advice. Since he cannot abide the lesson that should be taken from the sorry state of secular culture’namely, that it is the true fruit of atheism’he proffers naive and superficial prescriptions gleaned from religious practices. At times these are downright hilarious’as, for example, when he proposes that public readings of Montaigne could be conducted in the mode of the call and response of black Pentecostal preaching. Like many irreligious people, de Botton has almost no understanding of how religious communities actually form and operate. A reading of his manuscript by a rabbi or a priest prior to publication could have ferreted out some of the nonsense.

De Botton has another disadvantage when it comes to his project. While he acknowledges the historical basis of religious practices’the exodus or the resurrection come to mind’there is no corollary for atheists. Atheism must live on the thin gruel of a negation, which is what de Botton wants to get away from. But from whence does the binding force come? If atheism is right in saying that both history and material reality are essentially meaningless, then everything must devolve into the subjective. We are left with personal histories and the autonomy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Yet between sermons to the choir and some silly advice, there is some excellent analysis. Although religion is reduced to morality and consolation, we must concede it does have plenty of those. There are gems of insight throughout that justify the cost of the book.

The greatest challenge the book presents to the Reformed, though, is de Botton's contempt for what we may call "Reformed aesthetics"’or the lack thereof. Like his patron saint Montaigne, de Botton is a generalist; but his first love is the visual arts, and here he is an excellent critic. He has weighed us in his balances and found us wanting. He wants an atheism that appeals to the senses. And when it comes to the senses, the panoply of Rome is hard to beat. Now, doctrine has always been our beat, but as his opening chapter indicates, he believes he has no need of what we specialize in.

Still, it ought to give us pause: how do we respond to his accusation that where Reformed Protestantism flourishes, visual ugliness follows? Do we really believe, as he claims, that words are the only vehicles of meaning? I think not. But we do not need yet another book to make the point. What we need to do is make some beautiful things and let them speak for us. If we can manage to do that, we may find that atheists like Alain de Botton are willing to reconsider our doctrine.

Monday, July 2nd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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