123 of 138 people found the following review helpful
A good guide for those who don't believe in miracles but cannot agree religion is complete balderdash
, January 30, 2012
This review is from: Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion (Kindle Edition)
Alain de Botton's new book "Religion for Atheists" is a bold attempt to convince atheists, or those who don't believe in the existence of God, that it is possible to derive important lessons from religions around the world without accepting any supernatural claims they might make. Mr. de Botton is unequivocal about his atheistic stance, and frankly says that he doesn't believe in any supernatural being or phenomenon. But this atheistic position that many people probably adopt today, he claims, should not prevent them from appreciating the effective ways religions have provided to meet what he calls the needs of souls that tend all too often to be left unattended in our secularized world but remain none the less existent.
Based on this central principle, he refers to various fields ranging from education to architecture and shows us how religions have traditionally interpreted or dealt with the problems typically associated with those fields. For example, we tend to assume that the purpose of education is to impart valuable information. Hence our puzzlement over a university lecture that focuses exclusively on certain obscure literary works of a foreign thinker who died several thousand years ago, however much importance its lecturer argues they have. This kind of situation happens because of the fact that education has forgotten its original mission: to fill the moral vacuum that was left by the ebbing of the influence of religion. Religions used to teach each of its adherents how to find happiness, how to deal with suffering, and how to become a better, mature person---a kind of therapeutic pedagogy, the need for which remains as strong as ever despite the fact that we are now living in a godless, secular world. Mr. de Botton therefore argues that education, especially in the field of humanities, should ideally provide a reasonable substitute.
Another field that he zeros in on is art. Mr. de Botton complains that the high esteem we hold museums in is made almost useless by our nonsensical prejudice that art should be only for its own sake. Religions have used works of art as important tools of reminding us of those qualities that we understand at heart are important but too often forget or fail to act upon, and have had no qualm about admitting art serves a utilitarian purpose, like that of enhancing our happiness or of healing our souls. This attitude is, according to Mr. de Botton, still relevant today, and should influence ways we appreciate works of art.
These considerations, provocative as they may be, are deeply interesting and thought-provoking. Some of his ideas, however, are more controversial. For instance, in a section on the contrast between libertarianism and paternalism, he says religious paternalism used to help people be better than they would have been left to their own devices, whereas libertarianism, in which people are permitted to do whatever they like as long as they are law abiders, leaves people at a loss for where to seek moral guidance. But it is precisely because one's conviction that s/he has an infallible understanding of what is truly good or bad for humanity brought about tremendous bloodshed that our predecessors decided to enshrine the rights of individual freedom. Even if some aspects of paternalism are indeed appealing, it seems to be difficult to let go of the well-cherished principle that every individual is a sovereign over himself.
Another topic some might find unpalatable is his discussion of The Book of Job, which he claims is one of the most consoling texts for atheists. In this biblical story, Job, a wealthy, happy man, experienced a series of grave misfortunes, lost his children, his wealth and even his health. His neighbors said that he must have sinned and been punished, but he was convinced of his innocence and began to doubt the benevolence of God. At this point God admonished him for his haughtiness. Compared with the vastness of the universe and its mysteries, human beings were petty, insignificant creatures, and as such they had no qualification to fathom God's intentions. After this admonition, Job came to realize the pettiness of human life and the nothingness of his own existence. This story, says Mr. de Botton, helps us, like Job, to realize how small and how insignificant our everyday troubles and sorrows are, in comparison with the grandeur of the universe. But if you notice an analogy between what Job experienced and the tsunami that people in the north eastern part of Japan went through last year, Mr. de Botton's argument becomes less convincing. For how many would agree that those who got indignant at the disaster's unfairness were arrogant for presuming to judge what's fair and unfair? How many would say that the disastrous event, which claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives, reminded people of the smallness of their everyday desires and sufferings and the nothingness of their own existence? Very few, indeed.
Notwithstanding these controversial points, this book as a whole is an interesting attempt to add a new dimension to, and therefore stimulate, the otherwise insipid debates between the religious and the non-religious fundamentalists.
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