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Religion For Atheists

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Alain de Botton is a crisp communicator with an appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. He loves art and pleads for happier architecture in his Channel 4 series.

In his book Religion for Atheists he turns his eye to the benefits of religion for the irreligious. Hardcovered, well laid out with photos on almost every other page it’s accessible and appealing. I long for more books that look this good. A book appealing for aesthetics needs to look this good.
 
The question is, whether it’s all style and no substance.
 
The idea is straight forward enough: he observes the obvious that there is no god and so no divine revelation within his opening paragraph and then moves on, sweeping aside the tirades of the new atheists as unnecessary.
 
All style and no substance, then.

Beg Borrow Steal

His idea is simple. We don’t have to believe in god but we jolly well need the trappings of religion. We need its emphasis on community and kindness and education and tenderness. Society needs those social constructs that have been the outworking of religion, and though obviously we don’t need religion anymore we do need its form.
 
De Botton’s vision of a big society for the godless world is one that wants all the beauty and love of a world with God but without God, obviously.
 
Early on he proposes that society needs Agape Restaurants where everyone is welcome to enjoy a meal together, with forms of conversation that can rise above trivia and truly engage us.

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

 
Restrain yourself over his grouping of all religions into the same bag,de Botton won’t want to fight on that.
 
His hunger for such tasty life is a challenge to us as believers, because we so often and so easily seem to fall short of the things he’s attempting to steal from us. Do we value the bonds of friendship that we can enjoy? Do we value the aesthetics and benefits of architecture that our meetings could embody?

Hope

It’s idealistic, but could he really persuade us to abandon our suspicions of one another and turn up at such meals? Would we really be able to talk to one another freely? Would we share? Or might this be the kind of vision that you can only imagine if you’re used to the most polite and refined company? Seeing how difficult it is to get even Christians to really enjoy such fellowship meals together makes one a little cynical about doing it without the presence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to change people.
 
De Botton’s fervour for the things a Christian believes life is made to contain is a real challenge to us Protestants. More often de Botton has to draw on Catholicism in search of life-enriching beauty in art, architecture and meaningful ritual, the things many Protestants have chosen to flee, preferring instead to huddle in a hangar to read the Bible. I don’t want less than people around an open Bible, but there might be more to have.
 
Religion for Atheists remains, however, incredibly patronising and it would be tempting to get snooty about that. He is deeply naïve, though realistic, a suggestive rather than directive voice.
 
We could respond by saying that de Botton wants everything for nothing, but that might sound like saying he wants Christianity without the bad bits. Actually, he wants it without the good bits. He wants the life you can get with Jesus without having Jesus. The benefits without the benefactor. And one has to ask why?
 
The Christian is left to conclude that de Botton has altogether got the wrong end of the stick, and that his vision of a Big Society would eventually fall over for lack of foundations, and for lack of walls. Or it would seek to reclaim the substance and not just the style of ‘religion’. His vision of education that seeks not just to inform but to change lives will grasp for more substance in the end.

An Inconsolable Longing

What is intriguing is that here, and in his work on architecture, Alain de Botton longs for more. He’s not satisfied with utilitarianism. He wants us to lose god but not the forms and values that have accompanied belief in him in the past. He wants it all, and yet he wants none of it. And one has to ask why?
 
De Botton feels like a modern Pascal, calling for us to paint a vision that men would wish is true, but unlike Pascal who then demands that we prove it is true, he says ‘don’t worry, just live the dream’.
 
By comparison to modern secular society the world of Religion for Atheists is better, but it is not good enough. In the end it’s an empty shell, it’s what you can already find in liberal Christianity of the woolly variety, the kind of thing that is so often lambasted for its hypocrisy and abandoned for its lack of substance.
 
Alain de Botton is a thief, an honest thief, and a more thoughtful thief than Dawkins (who borrows beauty and poetry to talk about science). The curiosity is why he thinks beauty and art and community and kindness are worth having at all. Who is he to say that bland and ugly and selfish isn’t the more noble path? Or that it matters at all what quality of life we end up living?
 
When you know Jesus, you know these things really do matter, though not ultimately.
 
They matter because they reflect the Triune God, the divine community who lovingly and beautifully made us and this world in which we live.
 
The God who invites us not just to enjoy his world but to enjoy him, together. I’d love Alain de Botton to be able to really enjoy that too.

The Elephant in the Room

For all the invitation that de Botton makes to enjoy the forms of gospel community, one has to ask why his attentive eye has missed the person of Jesus who is standing at the centre of everything.
 
De Botton isn’t afraid to take examples from Jesus but has been deeply selective, which makes him sound like just another old fashioned established churchman, though one whose voice I enjoy hearing.
 
You can follow him on @alaindebotton and catch a short video version of the book here: TED Talk on Atheism 2.0

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