In a career spanning some 20 years and eight previous books, Alain de Botton has made a name for himself in the land of high-end self-help — in print, television documentaries and with his School of Life — by harvesting what he deems useful from great thinkers’ ideas and applying them to everyday life. In his “Consolations of Philosophy,” the Swiss-born, British-educated philosopher cited one of his heroes, the 16th-century essayist Montaigne, for teaching him that “what matters in a book is usefulness and appropriateness to life.” De Botton offered advice on how to stop wasting time in “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and suggested improvements to the often soul-sapping business of earning our keep in “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.”
Now, in what is sure to be his most controversial book, “Religion for Atheists,” de Botton turns his attention to aspects of religion he considers worth saving. Employing his usual mix of (mostly) cogent, highly personal discourse and quirky, often hilarious photographs, he tries to make a case for not throwing out the baby with the baptismal water.
De Botton states up front that he was brought up “in a committedly atheistic household, as the son of two secular Jews who placed religious belief somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus.” He adds: “I recall my father reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight years old at the time.” Well, one can only imagine the old man’s reactions to some of his son’s pronouncements in “Religion for Atheists.” Case in point: “Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.”
Though written by and for people who do not believe in the existence of God or “in miracles, spirits, or tales of burning shrubbery,” the book could be subtitled “Religious Appreciation 101.” Religions, de Botton writes, “merit our attention for their sheer conceptural ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have.” Focusing on just three major faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism — he makes a convincing case for their ability to create both a sense of community and education that addresses morality and our emotional life. He traces his “crisis of faithlessness” in his mid-20s to his exposure to religious art and architecture, including Bach cantatas, Bellini Madonnas and Zen architecture.
His criticisms of secular culture center on its lack of emotionality. He considers higher education irrelevant to “the most serious questions of the soul” and says it fails to teach us how to live. He believes that museums, which could be our new temples, stress information over feelings, which are what really matter. He dourly regards marriage as “one of modern society’s most grief-stricken arrangements, which has been rendered unnecessarily hellish by the astonishing secular supposition that it should be entered into principally for the sake of happiness.” On the other hand, he argues that “religions are wise in not expecting us to deal with all of our emotions on our own.”
De Botton is least persuasive when he makes specific proposals for a secular religion. His two primary models for this endeavor, Friedrich Nietzsche and Auguste Comte, were by his own admission mentally unbalanced. In his zeal to cure the anomie of modern culture, he goes ridiculously overboard, recommending that emotion be injected into every aspect of our lives. This would include not just a staggeringly anti-intellectual revamping of education but also reorganizing museums such as London’s Tate Modern to provide “real coherence at an emotional level,” with themed galleries of love, fear, self-knowledge and suffering.
For visual commentary, de Botton’s chapter on education amusingly contrasts a photo of a university student dozing over his books with a shot of the author’s proposed Department of Relationships, captioned, “Few would fall asleep.” True enough. Readers on both ends of the religious spectrum are liable to be kept awake fulminating at “Religion for Atheists,” though furious engagement with his ideas may well be de Botton’s intention.
As for his proposed “electronic versions of Wailing Walls that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” don’t tabloids and the Internet do that? How much healthier to assuage existential misery with what illustrator Maira Kalman calls “meaningful distraction.” And why build a Temple of Perspective to highlight our small place in the universe when we can just gaze at the stars, the ocean or a skyscraper?
RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS
A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon. 320 pp. $26.95