Alain de Botton, popular philosopher and confessed atheist, delights in contrarianism. In “Religion for Atheists,’’ he observes that religion exists in order to provide rules for living together in harmony, and explanations to help us cope with the vicissitudes of life and the certainty of death. All problems that are still relevant to us today.
“[T]he problems of the modern soul’’ - selfishness, consumerism, despair - “can successfully be addressed by solutions put forward by religions,’’ such as humility, contemplation, and forgiveness. But what to do if you can’t stomach the God part of religious belief? Not to worry, says de Botton. It is possible, preferable actually, to dislodge these ideas “from the supernatural structure within which they were first conceived.’’
We don’t need belief in God to provide us with a moral center, de Botton argues, and we never have. That argument “owes a strange, unwarranted debt to a religious mindset - for only if we truly believed at some level that God had once existed, and that the foundations of morality were therefore in their essence supernatural, would the recognition of his present non-existence have any power to shake our moral principles.’’
In a series of short essays on the themes of community, kindness, education, tenderness, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions, the eminently quotable de Botton holds forth on the deliberately provocative premise that ancient traditions can solve modern problems. He mounts interesting defenses of some of the least-liked parts of Christianity: the Book of Job, church corporatization, even original sin. (“Confessions of universal sinfulness turn out to be a better starting point from which to take our first modest steps towards virtue.’’)
Likewise, worship of the Virgin Mary may seem “to exemplify religion at its most infantile and soft-headed. How could any reasonable adult trust in the existence of a woman who lived several thousand years ago (if she ever lived at all), much less draw comfort from projected belief in her unblemished heart, her selfless sympathy, and her limitless patience?’’ But that’s not important, says de Botton. What’s important is “what it tells us about human nature that so many Christians over two millennia have felt the need to invent her,’’ what Mary reveals about our “emotional requirements’’ as humans.
De Botton proposes to build alternative, secular structures to fulfill these requirements. But this is a tall order, and many of his solutions are cringe-worthy. To replace the Eucharist: an “Agape Restaurant,’’ fine dining crossed with the early Christian love feast. A university for the soul - with Departments of Relationships instead of Literature. The premise he is testing is a worthy one: The secular world worships consumerism, optimism, and perfection to its doom, and would do well to make room for a little humility, community, and contemplation instead. But de Botton goes into unfortunate contortions describing just how the goodness is to be extracted.
He also picks and chooses his faiths - he generally has good things to say about Catholicism and Judaism and Zen Buddhism, but not Protestantism. And he is often inconsistent: The lack of decoration in an early Protestant church is disheartening, whereas the simplicity of Zen architecture is inspiring. The type of modern art that involves giant neon alphabets mounted on walls is ridiculous, but slabs of steel or piles of rock are great.
“Religion for Atheists’’ also comes across as Eurocentric; de Botton does not confront the American alliance between religion and conservative politics. And for that, his premise will not convince many young American atheists. (It’s hard to listen to the practical wisdom of religion when the louder voices are telling you you are going to hell for being gay or having had an abortion.) On the other hand, for anyone who has ever received comfort from religious practice, ritual, or community, the benefits of religion that de Botton extols with such surprise will come as no news at all. So who’s left?Brook Wilensky-Lanford, author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden,’’ can be reached through her website, www.paradiselustbook.com.