Religion for Atheists Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton, pp.320, 18.99

Over 125 of the 320 pages in this book are either blank, or taken up with black-and-white illustrations, of subjects as various as Madonna and her former husband Guy Ritchie, slates arranged by Richard Long, Buddhist truth-seekers going for a walk in a wood, and a little boy having his Bar Mitzvah in a New York restaurant. It is in the remaining 200 or so pages that the author must persuade his readers that there is no reason why atheists should not practise a religion, or, if they are not disposed to follow one of the existing cults, why they should not make one up for themselves. It is an attractive point of view. ‘La guerre’, as Clemenceau noted, ‘c’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires’. Religion, likewise, is perhaps too serious a matter to be left to the rabbis or the General Synod.

Clearly, de Botton is not addressing himself to fundamentalists of any persuasion. He tells us that his own parents were atheist fundamentalists, and that in his early twenties he underwent a ‘crisis of faithlessness’ brought on by such experiences as listening to Bach cantatas, viewing Zen architecture and Bellini madonnas. Though he does not specifically say so, such a crisis is a classically Victorian experience. John Stuart Mill, brought up as a serious rationalist by his Benthamite father, had just such a crisis, and feeling of liberation, when reading Wordsworth.

Having explored the ways in which atheists might tap into religious art, literature and rituals, he does in fact acknowledge that what he is suggesting is very similar to the optimistic outlook of  Auguste Comte’s Positivism (Comte died in 1857), and in his chapter on Education, de Botton acknowledges that much of what he was saying has been anticipated by Matthew Arnold.

It is in the Education chapter that would-be religious atheists might find his attractive book least convincing. He is too kind to confront one of the central difficulties of his proposal: namely the vast disparities between levels of human intelligence. With the traditional religions, stupid people and intelligent people can take part in the same rituals, whether of High Mass or Yom Kippur, without it being apparent that they presumably understand these things on very different levels. Describing an African American preacher, he says, presumably ironically:

There is little chance of resisting a theological argument which flows like this one, from the stage of the New Vision Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. ‘None of us today is in jail’. ‘Amen. All right now, Amen, Preacher’, say members of the Congregation. So, brothers, sisters, we should never be in prison in our minds.

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(Amen, Preacher.) This is compared with the preaching skills of John Donne, and accompanied by a cheerful black-and-white photograph of black ladies lifting up their hands in prayer.

Very many readers, including this one, will be thankful for de Botton’s hope that the human race could become a little nicer. It’s just that some readers will think he is being a bit optimistic. He suggests the establishment, for example, of ‘Agape’ restaurants, in which relative strangers meet at a common table and are encouraged to make conversation. ‘Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity.’ When did he last dine at the High Table of an Oxford college? ‘Thanks to the Agape restaurant, our fear of strangers would recede. The poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular.’ Well, maybe!

Alas, de Botton has little chance of success — either in starting a chain of Agape restaurants, or in persuading bigots on either side of this argument. Meanwhile, very many people who already attend church, synagogue or temple will do so, as has presumably always been the case, in many varied states of mind, which have included that of total unbelief.

It is a sad story, because, between the end of the Victorian age and the 1960s, it really looked as if there was a chance for Christianity, at least, to absorb, and accept, the fact that many people who had discarded the old ways of believing, yet saw the point of a liturgical year, punctuated by ritual observances; they also saw the point of old ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage and death. De Botton, in his attractive comments about Yom Kippur, regrets the fact that secularists do not have a time of year when they can all acknowledge the faults of the past year and try to patch up quarrels — but surely they do: it is the post-Dickensian observance of Christmas. Many who realise the extreme historical unlikelihood of Jesus having been to Bethlehem, let alone having been born there to the accompaniment of angel choirs, see the point of Scrooge’s conversion.

It must always have been the case, in all religions, that there was an enormous difference of belief among the adherents. In pre-Christian times, as you went through the Roman year as chronicled in Ovid’s Fasti, there would have been Epicurean atheists and Platonist worshippers of the Good and those who did not think about such matters, all offering incense at the same altars. The same was probably true of churches and synagogues and temples throughout the world.

Over a century ago, within the Church of England, figures such as Dean Stanley were propounding a position very similar to the one recommended in this book. The Catholic Modernists went further in their rejection of the old mythology. But Pope Pius X ruthlessly stamped them out and the sad fact is that, in all attempts since to explore this kind of territory, churches have reacted in a paranoid and intolerant manner. Think of the fuss made in the 1960s when the poor old Bishop of Woolwich wrote Honest to God.

Don Cupitt, the former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge ‘came out’ as an actual atheist decades ago, and there was the Death of God school of theology in America, but they did not do much to win a following in those churches which preferred to hunker down behind orthodox stockades. Quite why this is so is for sociologists and psychiatrists to explore. The ‘modern’ phenomenon is not, actually, the apparently radical idea expressed by de Botton. Historically speaking, the modern idea is that religious rites should only be permitted to those prepared to jump through certain intellectual hoops as an entrance requirement.

As soon as the churches began to introduce that Visa control, they guaranteed that they would lose millions of adherents. As de Botton shows in chapter after chapter, it is natural for human beings to follow ritual observances. The intolerance and stupidity of the churches were as much to blame for such people being cut adrift as were the dogmatic atheists, with their fifth-form debating club ‘arguments’ about whether God ‘exists’.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, God, Non-fiction, Religion