Breezily confident essayist Alain de Botton announced in a recent Twitter post: “If atheists really want to overcome religion, they should appropriate all of its positive sides rather than emulate its flaws.” That’s a miniature edition of his latest full-length missive, a systematic and inventive mapping of why (and how) atheists like de Botton can and should find religions useful and consoling.
After establishing the book’s foundation, that “no religions are true in any God-given sense,” and God doesn’t exist, de Botton tells readers they are now free to view religions differently, “as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.” This isn’t a purely original ambition, as de Botton acknowledges near the book’s end with a brief discussion of 19th century French sociologist August Comte’s invention of a secular “religion.” But in de Botton’s take, he happily and brazenly picks a little of this and a little of that from his personal religious buffet — a tactic he likens to the literature-lover focusing only on a select group of writers — to reveal how religion might fill gaps in what he calls nonbeliever’s impoverished lives.
Thankfully, he isn’t trying to compare specific religions but religion generally to secular life, and he demarcates the narrative in his customary methodical style, this time by nine facets within the religious prism: community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions. He then uses specific rituals and constructs from Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism to illustrate bold concepts for overhauling secular life.
One has to appreciate his pluck as much as his lucid, enjoyable arguments
After deconstructing the rigidity of Catholic Mass, for instance, he proposes as secular counterpart to religion’s community a humble Agape Restaurant where people can break bread with strangers and ease isolation. Saint figurines are later likened to stuffed animals, and behavioral star-charts recommended to guide adults to goodness. He argues that art galleries should be arranged to achieve the purpose of churches, and that erecting electronic billboard versions of the Wailing Wall will help people feel company in life’s sorrows. Modern education receives the most provocative renovation, with history and literature departments chucked in favor of using their information as tools in such courses as understanding marriage or dying.
Secular life has all the right ingredients, de Botton writes; it just needs help with the recipe. Founder of The School of Life, which addresses such issues as why relationships are challenging and how we can improve the world, de Botton is anxious to tweak it, offering this book as guide for those disinterested in dogma but seeking inner nourishment and structured advice on living.
One has to appreciate his pluck as much as his lucid, enjoyable arguments, and this book, like his previous titles, is a serious but intellectually wild ride. If anyone can “rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true,” it’s de Botton. LL
For the Miami Herald