Book review: Religion For Atheists

Alain de Botton’s crass attempt to rewrite religion for a secular age keeps missing the point

‘Why should the Devil”, said William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, “have all the best tunes?” Something of the same sentiment drives Alain de Botton’s new book, in which he argues that “religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone”. He examines a number of ideas and approaches which the secular world might feasibly and profitably “steal”, and offers some pragmatic suggestions about how to implement these desacralised rituals. It is striking that what de Botton finds important in religion is markedly solipsistic. The dust-jacket lists some of his perceived benefits of religion: “build a sense of community”, “make our relationships last”, “overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy”, “escape the twenty-four-hour media world”, “go travelling”, “get more out of art, architecture and music”, “create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs” – exactly the list that one might expect of the author of Status Anxiety, The Architecture of Happiness, The Art of Travel and The Consolations of Philosophy and the founder of the “School of Life”, the website for which is helpfully provided at the end.

Central to de Botton’s thesis is that philosophy (and by extension, theology and religious practice) are psychologically therapeutic. His vision is not that philosophy ought to unsettle and perturb. In reducing religion to a mechanism to produce contentment, de Botton strips it not just of metaphysics, but of ethical grandeur and political significance. Although the book is presented as if it were part of the current non-debate about “New Atheism”, it is very light indeed on what secularism could learn from religious philosophy.

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There is nothing about Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (and its metamorphosis into existentialism), or Buber’s I-Thou relationship (and its opposite, the I-It relationship, and its critique of modernism), let alone any discussion of figures such as Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg or Ali Shariati.

So, in the first chapter, on community, de Botton looks at the Eucharist and the Passover meal, then turns to atonement and finally considers the medieval Feast of Fools (not, I should add, a feature of any contemporary form of Christianity). He rarely manages to suppress a snide undertone when describing religious ritual – the Mass “goes on for a long time and rarely overrides a temptation to fall asleep”. He suggests that a secular form of the community spirit and the levelling nature of the Eucharist (or Passover) might be achieved through branded Agape Restaurants – agape being Greek for the highest form of spiritual love. At this point I seriously wondered if this wasn’t a pernicious satire on secularism. These Agape Restaurants – which de Botton claims would be “true to the profound insights of the Eucharist” – would “have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior”. The diners would be forced to sit with strangers and ask each other probing questions (“What do you regret?”, “Whom can you not forgive?”) and miraculously “our fear of strangers would recede. The poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists and artists”. One wonders how modest this modest fee is.

The resemblance of the Eucharist to a dinner is symbolic, and commemorative: what is being remembered is the final meal before an unparalleled act of self-sacrifice. Most church services have a collection; but are fundamentally free. The participants are not interacting with each other, but interacting with their God and interrogating their own consciences. The bathetic trajectory from the religious original to the de Botton version is played out again with atonement. It is typical that the sub-heading is “apologies” – not the more morally complex “forgiveness”.

Again, the concentration on self-help stymies any profound analysis. When we have wronged people, says de Botton, “what we did makes us feel uncomfortable with an unmanageable intensity”. Forgiveness is an ethically and politically problematic topic – excellent work has been done on it by Derrida, Griswold and Arendt – and it raises questions about conditionality, acceptance of guilt and the possibility of moral change. It is not just feeling bad and saying sorry.

Finally, with the meditation on the anarchic medieval Feast of Fools, de Botton suggests that, once a year, “we should be allowed to talk gibberish, fasten woollen penises to our coats and set out into the night to party and copulate randomly with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar, both sides knowing it was nothing personal”. The Feast of Fools had a serious theological purpose, seen best in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly and St Paul’s analysis of foolishness (“for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”). To reduce it to a socially acceptable swingers’ party is slightly pitiable.

Later chapters display the same strategy, a systematic hollowing-out of real significance leaving empty vessels unembarrassed by their emptiness. On universities, de Botton advocates a form of massive egotism: do away with Humanities and replace it with “a Department for Relationships … a Centre of Self-Knowledge”. Museums, likewise, should have a “Gallery of Compassion” and a “Gallery of Self-Knowledge”. He would replace all culture with, in Joyce’s words, “the cracked looking-glass of a servant”. The Wailing Wall is transmogrified into digital screens on billboards churning out “what in Jerusalem is reserved only for the eyes of God: the particulars of the misfortunes of others, the details of the broken hearts, dashed ambition, sexual fiascos, jealous stalemates and ruined bankruptcies that normally remain hidden behind our impassive fronts”. De Botton thinks such a thing would be “reassuring”. I think it would be a piece of ghastly Schadenfreude.

There is a de-politicisation at work as well. The central Christian ethic – best summarised in the proverb of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s gospel (“when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home; when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help; when I was in prison you visited me”) is not deemed worthy of discussion in terms of how to live a good life. De Botton, like a watered-down Guy Debord, rails against capitalist advertising, but then is piqued that Armani set up a hotel chain rather than a “therapy unit or a liberal arts college”.

What seems beyond de Botton are the radical aspects of religion, the challenges rather than the blandishments. To paraphrase the late Iris Murdoch, there’s a great deal of difference between being nice and being good. De Botton trots out Steven Weinberg’s quote, that “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion”. As a counter example, and a person whom even the secular might recognise as a contemporary saint, consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian who took part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was executed by the SS in 1945, 23 days before the Nazi surrender. But his decision is no less remarkable than the moral anguish he went through to reach it – would, in effect, breaking one of the commandments mean he was condemning himself to damnation? Bonhoeffer’s subtle and hard-won arguments turned a good man into a great man. De Botton’s book, in the light of that, is not “religion for atheists”, but pabulum for the precious.

Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton

Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, £18.99