Alain de Botton's pastoral atheism
De Botton says religions are not true, and God does not exist. Yet atheists should not dismiss religions on these grounds. The rituals, modes of thinking, methodologies, and approaches to life that religions promote can still be of great assistance to atheists.
For instance, de Botton argues that atheists could learn how to foster a sense of community from the Catholic Mass. The Jewish Day of Atonement could help atheists build better interpersonal relationships. Zen Buddhist retreats could assist atheists to reflect on the direction of their lives.
One chapter commends religious places of worship and the feelings they can induce in us. De Botton suggests building a secular 'Temple to Perspective' — a place where humans can put their troubles into perspective by reflecting on the 460 million years Earth has existed for.
With typical zeal, de Botton has already put this suggestion into action, raising almost half of the million pounds required to actually build this temple in London.
The proposal has angered fellow atheists. Richard Dawkins has condemned the plan, declaring that 'atheists don't need temples', and that the money would be better spent on promoting 'rational, critical thinking'. The Guardian's Steve Rose protests that the Temple of Perspective is insufficiently atheist, and so 'a Christian or Muslim' might also be able to enjoy it.
These criticisms demonstrate the gap between de Botton and other atheists. Dawkins and Rose's outlook is missionary, while de Botton's is pastoral. Dawkins and his ilk want to save souls from religion, and promote the good news of atheism. De Botton is more concerned with the spiritual needs of the existing flock.
Many atheists argue that religious people are childish, irrational, needy, and vulnerable, and that atheism is about turning away from all those things, and embracing a rational, 'grown-up' existence. That argument is implicit in Dawkins' dismissive 'atheists don't need temples'.
While de Botton agrees atheism is the rational choice, he argues that those who make that choice do not suddenly cease to be irrational and childish. It is not religious people who are childish and vulnerable, but human beings. The wisdom of religion is to recognise our inherent vulnerability, and cater to that aspect of our being.
It is evident why atheists might be angered by de Botton's ideas. But what should theists make of this book?
It will offend theists who believe the only reason to practise religious rituals is simply to adhere to God's edicts. For such theists, God's reasons for prescribing particular rituals are irrelevant and inscrutable. To put it bluntly, God might as well have commanded us to do the hokey-pokey, and these theists would perform it with as much zeal as they might attend a Catholic Mass.
These believers will regard de Botton's use of elements of religious rituals outside of a theistic context as absurd and blasphemous.
Other theists, such as myself, instead see religious rituals and practices as a means of guiding and enabling a life lived in accordance with the beliefs and values of a particular faith. Religion for Atheists can help this type of believer gain a new appreciation for the utility of religious rituals.
De Botton eloquently demonstrates just how helpful religious practices are, even when the theistic content is substituted for lessons about 'perspective' or 'community'. Believers can see that when the more profound teachings of religions are re-inserted into the rituals, those rituals are powerful tools indeed for assisting us to live our lives in a way that is attuned to theistic values and beliefs.
While de Botton's individual ideas and arguments are at times open to fundamental criticisms, his general perspective is a valuable one. His book can help theists articulate the importance of religious practices in a world that is, even among believers, increasingly sceptical of organised religion.
But at the same time, it can also assist believers to fearlessly adapt and improve aspects of traditional religion where that is required. In a new epoch that requires religions to be introspective if they wish to remain strong, this can only be a good thing.
Patrick McCabe works at an Adelaide law firm while completing a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. He is a former contributor to the Adelaide University magazine On Dit. Patrick won Eureka Street's 2011 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers with this essay.