reading notes from Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.

… we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind - and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm.

The challenge facing atheists is how to reverse the process of religious colonisation: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.

What follows is an attempt to read faiths (…) in the hope of gleaning insights which might be of use within secular life, particularly in relation to the challenges of community and of mental and bodily suffering.

In so far as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centred around the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is “what do you do?”, our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned by the peanuts.

Religions seem to know a great deal about loneliness. Even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of their doctrines, we can nevertheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers, and their attempts to melt away one or two of the prejudices that normally prevent us from building connections with others.

It feels relevant to talk of meals because our modern lack of a proper sense of community is importantly reflected in the way we eat. The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company - cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants - but what is significant is the almost universal lack of venues that help us to transform strangers into friends.

Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangements, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart, and kith favoured over kin. Everyone would be sate to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of occupying the same space, the guests would - as in a church - be signalling their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

The notion that we could mend some of the tatters in the modern social fabric through an initiative as modest as a communal meal will seem offensive to those with greater trust in the power of legislative and political solutions to cure society’s ills.

We learn from religion not only about the charms of community. We learn also that a good community accepts just how much there is in us that doesn’t really want community - or at least can’t tolerate it in its ordered forms all the time. If we have our feasts of love, we must also have our feasts of fools.

At times of domestic chaos, we can look across at a plastic statuette and inwardly ask what St Francis of Assisi would recommend that we say to our furious wife and hysterical children now. The answer may be inside us all along, but it doesn’t usually emerge or become effective until we go through the exercise of formally asking the question (of a saintly figurine).

The very qualities that the religious locate in their holy texts can often just as well be discovered in works of culture. Novels and historical narratives can adeptly impart moral instruction and edification. Great paintings do make suggestions about our requirements for happiness. Literature can change our lives. Equivalents to the ethical lessons of religion do lie scattered across the cultural cannon. Why, then, does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons in literature and art as believers will according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us? Why are atheists not able to drawn on culture with the same spontaneity and rigour which the religious apply to their holy texts?

We are by no means lacking in materials which we might call into service to replace the holy texts; we are simply treating that material in the wrong way. We are unwilling to consider secular culture religiously enough, in other words, as a source of guidance. So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.

The differences between secular and religious approaches to education boil down to the question of what learning should be for. (…) When confronted with those who demand of culture that it should be relevant and useful, that it should offer up advice on how to choose a career, or survive the end of marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become disdainful. (…) In contrast, Christianity concerns itself from the outset with the inner confused side of us, declaring that we are none of us born knowing how to live (…) It has been the essential task of the Christian pedagogic machine to nurture, reassure, comfort and guide our souls.

The technique that the academy so fears - the emphasis on connection between abstract ideas and our own lives, the lucid interpretation of texts, the preference for extracts over wholes - have always been the methods of religions, which had to wrestle, centuries before the invention of television, with the challenge of how to render ideas vivid and pertinent to impatient and distracted audiences. They have realised all along that the greatest danger they faced was not the oversimplification of concepts, but the erosion of interest and support through incomprehension and apathy. They recognised that clarity preserves rather than undermines ideas, for it creates a base upon which the intellectual labour of an elite can subsequently rest.

Departments [of the redesigned universities of the future] would be required to confront the problematic areas of our lives head-on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies would be given form and explored as openly in lay institutions as they are in churches. There would be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

Alongside setting alternative curricula for universities and emphasising the need to rehearse and digest knowledge, religions have also been radical in taking education out of the classroom and combining it with other activities, encouraging their followers to learn through all their senses, not only by listening and reading, but also, and more broadly, by doing: eating, drinking, bathing, walking and singing.

Ze Buddhism, for instance, proposes ideas about the importance of friendship, the inevitability of frustration and the imperfection of human endeavours. But it does not simply lecture its adherents in these tenets; it helps them more directly to apprehend their truth through flower arranging, calligraphy, meditation, walking, gravel raking, and, most famously, tea drinking.

Religions understand the value of training our minds with a rigour that we are accustomed to applying only to training our bodies. They present us with an array of spiritual exercises designed to strengthen our inclination towards virtuous thoughts and patterns of behaviour; they sit us down in unfamiliar spaces, adjust our posture, regulate what we eat, give us scripts detailing what we should say to one another and minutely monitor the thoughts that cross our consciousness. They do all this not in order to deny us freedom, but to quell our anxieties and flex our moral capacities.

This double insight - that we should train our minds just as we train our bodies, and that we should do so partly through those bodies - has lead to the founding, by all the major faiths, of religious retreats where adherents may for a limited time abscond from their ordinary lives and find inner restoration though spiritual exercise. The secular world offers no true parallels. Our closest equivalents are country hotels and spas, though the comparison serves only to reveal our shallowness.

Catholic retreats continue even today to provide their guests with comfortable accommodations, extensive libraries and spiritual activities ranging from the 'examen' - thrice daily survey of the conscience, carried out alone and in silence (…) - to sessions with counsellors who have been specially trained to inject logic and morality into believers' confused and corrupted thought process.

The specific of the exercises taught at Buddhist and other retreats are perhaps not as significant as the general point they raise about our need to impost greater discipline on our inner lives. If the predominant share of our distress is caused by the state of our psyches, it seems perverse that the modern leisure industry should seek always to bring comfort to our bodies without attempting simultaneously to console and tame what the Buddhist so presciently term our 'monkey minds'. We require effective centres for the restoration of our whole beings; new kinds of retreats devoted to educating, though an array of secularised spiritual exercises, our corporeal as well as psychological selves.

It is to religions’ credit that they have never sided with those who would argue that wisdom is unteachable. They have dared directly to address the great questions of individual life - What should I work for? How do I love? How can I be good - in ways that should intrigue atheists even if they find little to agree with in the specific answers provided.

No existing mainstream secular institution has a declared interest in teaching us the art of living. (…) Religion is laden with ideas for correctives. Its example proposes a new curriculum: a scheme for arranging knowledge according to the challenges to which it relates, rather than an academic area in which it happens to fall; a strategy of reading for a purpose (to become better and saner); an investment in oratory and a set of methods for memorising and more effectively publishing ideas.

While for long stretches of our lives we can believe in our maturity, we never succeed in insulating ourselves against the kind of catastrophic events that sweep away our ability to reason, our courage and our resourcefulness at putting dramas in perspective and throw us back into a state of primordial helplessness. At such moments we may long to be held and reassured, as we were decades ago by some sympathetic adult, most likely our mother, a person who made us feel physically protected, stroked our hair, looked at us with benevolence and tenderness and perhaps said not very much other than, very quietly, 'of course'. Though such longings go largely unmentioned in adult society, it has been the achievement of religions to know how to reanimate and legitimate them.

It would be useful if our secular artists were occasionally to create works which took parental care as their central theme, and if architects designed spaces, whether in museums, or more ambitiously, in new Temples to Tenderness, where we could contemplate these new works in a twilight ambience.

If Pascal’s pessimism can effectively console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope. It is hope - with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians and our planet - that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us. The incompatibility between the grandeur of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments which rack our days and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces. Hence the relief, which can explode in bursts of laughter, when we finally come across an author generous enough to confirm that our very worst insights, far from being unique and shameful, are part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind. Our dread that we might be the only ones to feel anxious, bored, jealous, cruel, perverse and narcissistic turns out to be gloriously unfounded, opening up unexpected opportunities for communion around our dark realities.

A pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizons. Modern secular optimists, on the other hand, generally fail to savour any epiphanies of everyday life as they busy themselves with the construction of earthly paradise.

There would be no resolutions on offer in these venues, no end to suffering, only a basic - and yet infinitely comforting - public acknowledgement that we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.

For atheists, one of the most consoling texts of the Old Testament should be the Book of Job, which concerns itself with the theme of why bad things happen to good people - a question to which, intriguingly, it refuses to offer up simple faith-based answers. Instead it suggests that it is not for us to know why events occur in the way they do, that we should not always interpret pain as punishment and that we should recall that we live in a universe riddled with mysteries, of which the vagaries of our fortunes are certainly not the largest or even, as we will become aware only if we can look at matters from a sufficient remove, among the most important.

Spinoza had no patience with the notion of an anthropomorphic Super Being who could speak to his followers from a mountaintop and dwelt in the clouds. For him, 'God’ was a merely scientific term for the force that had created the universe, the first cause, or in the philosopher’s preferred phrase, the 'cause of itself', causa sui. As a philosophical construct, this God offered Spinoza considerable consolation. During moments of frustration and disaster, the philosopher recommended the adoption of a cosmic perspective, or a re-envisioning of the situation, in his famous and lyrical coinage, 'under the aspect of eternity', sub specie aeternitatis. Fascinated by the new technology of his age - and most of all by telescopes and the knowledge they yielded of other planets - Spinoza proposed that we use our imaginations to step outside ourselves and practice submitting our will to the laws of the universe, however contrary these might seem to our intentions.

The puzzlement shared by museum-goers only increases when we turn to the art of our own era. (…) And we think to ourselves that only an idiot or a reactionary would dare to ask what all this could mean. The only certainty is that neither the artist, nor the museum is going to help us: wall texts are kept to a minimum; catalogues are enigmatically written. It would take a brave soul to raise a hand.

Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us what matters. It exists to guide us what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well ordered souls. It is a mechanism whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.

… we need art because we are so forgetful. We are creatures of the body as well as of the mind, and so require art to stir our languid imagination and motivate us in ways that mere philosophical expositions cannot. Many of our most important ideas get flattened and overlooked in everyday life, their truth rubbed off through casual use. We know intellectually that we should be kind and forgiving and empathetic, but such adjectives have a tendency to lose all their meaning until we meet with a work of art that grabs us through our senses and won’t let us go until we have properly remembered why these qualities matter and how badly society needs them for its balance and sanity.

… good art is the sensuous presentation of those ideas which matter most to the proper functioning of our souls - and yet which we are most inclined to forget, even though they are the basis for our capacity for contentment and virtue.

We may associate propaganda with corruption and tasteless posters, but Christianity took it to be synonymous with the artistic enhancement of our receptivity to such qualities as modesty, friendship and courage.

… we are as a rule not very skilled at communicating the texture of our troubles to others, or at sensing the sorrows they themselves are hiding behind their stoic facades. We are therefore in need of art to help us to understand our own neglected hurt, to grasp everything that does not come up in casual conversation and to coax us out of an unproductively isolated relationship with our most despised and awkward qualities.

The unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art. We depend on artists to orchestrate moments of compassion or to excite our sympathies on a regular basis; to create artificial conditions under which we can experience, in relation to the figures we see in works of art, some of what we might one day feel towards flesh-and-blood people in our own lives.

The real difficulty with the ideas that underlie compassion is not that they seem surprising or peculiar, but rather that they seem far too obvious: their very reasonableness and ubiquity strip them of their power. To cite a verbal parallel, we have heard a thousand times that we should love our neighbour, but the prescription loses any of its meaning when it is merely repeated by rote. So too with art: the most dramatic scenes, painted without talent or imagination, generate only indifference and boredom. The task for artists is therefore to find new ways of prising open our eyes to tiresomely familiar, yet critical ideas.

The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our museums so that art can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, it has served those of theology. Curators should dare to reinvent their spaces so that they can become more than dead libraries for the creations of the past. These curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and to stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet. Museums must be more than places for displaying beautiful objects. They should be places that use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise. Only then will museums be able to claim that they have properly fulfilled the noble but still elusive ambition of becoming our new churches.

For Plotinus, the quality of our surroundings counts because what is beautiful is far from being idly, immorally or self-indulgently 'attractive'. Beauty alludes to, and can remind us about, virtues like love, trust, intelligence and justice; it is a material version of goodness. If we study beautiful flowers, columns or chairs, Plotinus’s philosophy proposed, we will detect in them properties that carry direct analogies with moral qualities and will serve to reinforce these in our hearts via our eyes.

In the absence of gods, we will still retain ethical beliefs which are in need of being solidified and celebrated. Any of those things which we revere but are inclined too often to overlook might justifiably merit the founding of its own 'temple'. There could be temples to spring and temples to kindness, temples to serenity and temples to reflection, temples to forgiveness and temples to self knowledge.

What might a temple without a god in it look like? (…) The temples’ only common element would have to be their dedication to promoting virtues essential to the well-being of our souls. But which specific virtues should be honoured in the various venues, and how the idea of them would be successfully conveyed, could be entirely left up to their individual architects and patrons. The priority would be only to define a new typology of building rather than to design particular examples of it.

To be made to 'feel small' is, to be sure, a painful daily reality of the human playground. But to be made to feel small by something mighty, noble, accomplished and intelligent is to have wisdom presented to us along with a measure of delight.

Because we are drawn in architecture to styles which seem to possess some of the qualities we lack in ourselves, it is little wonder that we should be readily seduced by spaces that are purified and free of distraction, and in which stimuli have been reduced to a minimum - places, perhaps, where the view has been carefully framed to take in a few rocks, or the branches of a tree, or a patch of sky, where the walls are solid, the materials are enduring and the only sound to be heard is that of wind or flowing water.

A Temple to Reflection would lend structure and legitimacy to moments of solitude. It would be a simple space, offering visitors little beyond a bench or two, a vista and a suggestion that they set to work on unravelling some of the troubling themes that they have been using their normal activity to suppress.

There is a devilishly direct relationship between the significance of an idea and how nervous we become at the prospect of having to think about it. We can be sure that we have something especially crucial to address when the very notion of being alone grows unbearable. For this reason, religions have always been forceful in recommending that their followers observe periods of solitude, however much discomfort these might at first provoke. A modern Temple to Reflection would follow this philosophy, creating ideally reassuring conditions for contemplation, allowing us to wait in a restful bare room for those rare insights upon which the successful course of our life depends, but which normally run across our distracted minds only occasionally and skittishly like shy deer.

Although few of us would today walk a hundred kilometres to seek help for a fear of lightning, travelling nevertheless remains at the heart of many secular ideas of fulfilment. Our trips retain a role in cementing important inner transitions. While we might call them valuable rather than holy, there are places which by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us.

How much more therapeutic our journeys might be if they could include a visit to a secular local shrine or temple, a work of architecture that would define and concentrate the qualities of its surrounding setting. Inside, we could deposit wax versions of our anxieties and immaturities, attempting thereby to formalise the purpose of our trip - while outside, in a row of small retail spaces, talented artists would sell inspiring tokens of the transformative powers of their settings. One such shrine might be dedicated to the energy of a capital city, another to the purifying calmness of the deserted tundra, a third to the promises of the tropical sun. These temples would offer homes to otherwise elusive genii locorum, and together teach us to regard travel as a means of existential healing, rather than merely a source of entertainment or relaxation.

There is no need to catalogue here all the themes that a new generation of temples might take up. There is in the end room in the world for as many different kinds of temple as there are varieties of need. The point is only to argue that we should revive and continue the underlying aims of religious architecture, by expressing these through secular temples designed to promote important emotions and abstract themes, rather than through sacred shrines dedicated to embodied deities. No less than the church spires in the skyscapes of medieval Christian towns, these temples would function as reminders of our hopes. (…) they would all be connected through the ancient aspiration of sacred architecture: to place us for a time in a thoughtfully structured three-dimensional space, in order to educate and rebalance our souls.

The challenge is (…) to create - via a study of religious institutions - secular entities that could meet the needs of the inner self with all the force and skill that corporations currently apply to satisfying the needs of the outer.

Because we are embodied creatures - sensory animals as well as rational beings - we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels. As religions seem alone in properly understanding, we cannot be adequately marked by ideas unless, in addition to being delivered through books, lectures and newspapers, they are also echoed in what we wear, eat, sing, decorate our houses with and bathe in.

Religions bring scale, consistency and outer-directed force to what might otherwise always remain small, random, private moments. They give substance to our inner dimensions - precisely those parts of us which Romanticism prefers to leave unregulated, for fear of hampering our chances of authenticity. They don’t solely regulate our feelings to volumes of poetry or essays, knowing that books are in the end hushed objects in a noisy world. When it is springtime, Judaism takes hold of us with a force that Wordsworth of Keats never employed: at the first blossoming of trees, the faithful are told to gather outdoors with a rabbi and together recite the birkat ilanot, a ritual prayer from the Talmud honouring the hand that made the blossom…

… secular society requires its own institutions, ones that could take the place of religions by addressing human needs which fall outside of the existing remits of politics, the family, culture and the workplace. (…) good ideas will not be able to flourish if they are always left inside books. In order to thrive, they must be supported by institutions of a kind that only religions have so far known how to build.

A central problem with any attempt to rethink some of the needs left unmet by the ebbing of religion is novelty. Whereas we are for the most part well disposed to embrace the new in technology, when it comes to social practices, we are as deeply devoted to sticking with what we know. We are reassured by traditional ways of handing education, relationships, leisure time, ceremonies and manners. We are especially resistant to innovations which can be pegged to the thought of one person alone. To have the best chance of being taken up, ideas should seem like the product of common sense or collective wisdom rather than an innovation put forward by any single individual. What would likely be seen as a bold innovation in software can too easily, in the social sphere, come across as a cult of personality.

The essence of the argument presented here is that many of the problems of the modern soul can be successfully addressed by solutions put forward by religions, once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure within which they were first conceived. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.

  • religion_for_atheists.txt
  • Last modified: 2016-03-30 08:35
  • by maja