“Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Botton

I know God doesn’t make wars and free-willed humans do, but still… religious wars have always been the most atrocious ones, I feel.

What is the purpose of religion? Why does it seems that many people can’t live without it? Why do people hold on to the values of religion when we very well know throughout history that it has caused more damage than good? What is it that religious people find in their faith? Is the comfort and peace of mind they find real? As one who has been ‘immersed’ in religion for some time but has decided to get out of it, this book has answered some of the questions above. The book has brought back some nostalgia about the days I used to be such a ‘good Catholic’, but I must confess, I do not agree with the undoubtedly talented and renown author on all the points he makes.

Alain de Botton starts this book with the premise that there are many aspects of religion that the secular society does not have, but could benefit from, such as the sense of community, education, art, among many other things. He wants these positive aspects, those that seem to encourage a greater sense of belonging and spiritual enrichment, to be incorporated within our secular society, so that more people can benefit from them. In his words,

Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.”

Religions do offer a feeling of belonging, where everyone within a church, a temple or a mosque feels there is no need to ‘stand out’ or show off your success. Everyone is equal, no one will judge you based on how much you earn for instance, or where you work, like they do ‘out there’. The simple notion of such a ‘space’ is significant, for the normal secular society does not provide such space where strangers can become friends, without fearing, or without fearing as much, whether the person you just talked to turned out to be a rapist or something. As a human being, we all desire, deep inside, to have these feelings of security, sympathy and acceptance; and religious spaces offer those, graciously and without limits. The fact that you and I have the same faith is enough for us to engage in a conversation, to connect, or simply, give a smile without any particular reason.

In the eyes of God, we are all his children.

As we are assembled in the sanctity of the Church (the author mainly refers to Christianity, Judaism and only to a small extent, Buddhism, but since I’m more familiar with Christianity, I will talk mainly about the Catholic Church in this review), we enter the cocoon of its institution, where we are taught about the Original Sin, our failings, God’s unlimited love despite our flaws, and our responsibilities within this sacred community to contribute to its development. Unlike secular schools or ‘society’ in general, we are taught not “how to make a living“, but rather “how to live“, ‘how to be a good child of God’. Through repetitive ceremonies and prayers, and through moments of occasional feasting (Easter, Christmas, etc), we are constantly reminded of the scriptures, of Jesus’ story, of the history of the prophets in the Old Testament, of the glory that is God and his Son and of what is waiting for us after this life. The Church tends to our needs, especially the spiritual and emotional ones, but not within the small boundaries of our own selves, it “brings scale, consistency, and outer-directed force to what might otherwise always remain small, random, private moments“.

The author seems to be keen on letting the readers know about the positive sides pertaining to religions, in all aspects of our life. As an atheist himself, he finds it somewhat sad that “so opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious beliefs that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives”, and on how secular societies have let our simple beliefs in culture, education, literature and arts become guides in our lives. For instance, today’s universities are rather eager to provide its students a set of skills and tools that will help them get a ‘good job’, i.e. one that makes good money and won’t let you die as a hungry sage in humanities studies. A university in Seoul even decided to get rid of its College of Humanities all together and rather focus on business management and these things you apparently need to get a job, I wouldn’t know which exactly. Instead of remaining as institutions that try to inspire you through history, classic literature and philosophy, universities are concerned with how many of their graduates join the top companies. The ‘secular’ teachings and books have become fleeting stepping stones we forget about, the moment we leave the classroom or close their cover. In contrast, religious institutions make sure that their followers constantly go through the scriptures so that they are always reminded of the teachings of their faith.

Tenderness and compassion are two other aspects of religion referred by the author. Religion successfully finds the inner child in all of us, that child that wants to  and needs to be comforted by its mother in times of trouble. Catholics are especially known for the distinctive regard they have for Mary, mother of Jesus, and many prayers (among them, the Rosary) are devoted to her, and not to Jesus himself. If I may venture on defending the Catholic Church on this point, against the frequent criticism addressed by Protestants (especially Korean Protestants, I find), that Catholics ‘believe’ in Mary even more than in Jesus, that is not the case. Mary represents a mother figure, one you can run to at any time and one that will welcome you with open arms and cuddle you, and I guess people sometimes find it more ‘convenient’ or more ‘soothing’ to confess to a mother figure than to a male figure pictured frequently with a beard, no matter how much he talks about love and forgiveness. Furthermore, as the mother of Jesus, she is respected for giving birth to him and for witnessing his death and all with little shadow of doubt. That is all.

The Virgin Mary for Catholics is a mother figure to all of its followers. She is there in their most dire moments of need and trouble, to provide them comfort and love.

Compassion is another trait that distinguishes religious art and architecture. People share the pain and joys of what is represented on religious arts, and these paintings often attenuate the worst of their feelings of paranoia and isolation. For atheists and ‘secular’ paintings, the author finds it is often much harder to find that feeling of ‘sharing’.

Contrary to his claim -and I guess the fact- that he is an atheist, the author seems to be quite ‘smitten’ with the idea of religion and its diverse positive ramifications on how people can live more harmoniously as a group. He almost makes me want to go back to church, where, I admit, I’ve had some great, fun and inspiring times.

The Catholic Youth Bible Group – believe it or not, I was once a devoted member of this organization 😉

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the author has so much respect for the institution that is religion exactly because he was not part of it. It’s like he was looking at it from afar, from his secular and God-less world, and while trying to find a solution to the mundane troubles of this world, religion arose upon a white and pure cloud and that was it for him. Unfortunately, while God may not be a man-made creation, religion is. He calls it an ‘institution’ that can provide a sense of belonging and sharing, and yes, he is right, it is just that, a man-made ‘institution‘. And like any other institution, it cannot stand solely on the ideas it originally started upon, these ideas are long gone, and the white and pure cloud is supported by a variety of tools and distortions and power-struggle that man created to maintain that religion.

Besides the fact that he only uses three religions (what about Islam? or Hinduism?) to illustrate his point, he also fails to differentiate between the terms ‘secular’ and ‘atheist’. Just because a society is secular, it doesn’t mean that it is atheist. I believe in the existence of God, and therefore might be uncomfortable to be part of an atheist society, but I wouldn’t have any problem with a secular one.

That being said, it is true that religion offers first and foremost a ‘space’ where people can gather without fearing to be discriminated against. It is also true that it appeals to our innermost need of being comforted and being tended to. And the ‘Catholic guilt’ may indeed motivate us to do (or try to) more good than bad.

However, I do wonder if we today are not often exaggerating that ‘feeling of belonging’ and ‘sense of community’. I must tread carefully upon this issue, I know, but we are so often and so naturally driven to long for the ‘good ol’ days’, that we don’t even give a chance to what is inevitably happening now. True, I would love for the ‘good old days’ to come back when neighbors used to know one another and kids could run in the streets knowing at least someone from the neighborhood was watching them. How nice would it be indeed if you entered a restaurant and decided to have lunch with someone you just met then and there? Yes, people have seen some beautiful days throughout history. However, that beautiful past also meant some woman was stuck in her household to take care of the kids and cook some nice meal for all the neighbors. It means that the neighbors would constantly gossip about what you ate and what you wore. It means you were often stuck in the same village or neighborhood for your whole lifetime without having or even dreaming of the opportunity to have a job elsewhere, at the other corner of the world. And guess what, back in those days, you couldn’t let your 569 Facebook friends know about that delicious hamburger you just had at the most hip restaurant in town. And you and I know that once you’ve had your taste at that devil that is the internet, it’s very hard to go back.

I believe that people are still looking to belong to some group, small or big, and they can make it so without going to a particular religious group. People who share hobbies, want to learn the same new language or go to the same school will find a way to make and build connections, and maintain them. Unless you choose to be secluded in the confines of your bedroom in front of your laptop, you are bound to belong to a group, be it your squash group or your book club or simply  your group of grad school friends. Is there really a need to know a variety of people? I mean, yes, diversity is good, the more diverse people you know the more chance you have to become open-minded, but at the end of the day, all we need is three or four friends we can count on. And if you think that religious groups don’t have weirdos you would rather avoid, you’re dead wrong. There are just as many weird people in churches as anywhere else. What is worse is that you can’t openly avoid them, when you could have if it were any other ‘secular’ group, because religion is what brought you together and you feel guilty for not ‘loving’ that person as God teaches you to. That is one of the most unpleasant feelings, I can vouch for that.

The ‘Original Sin’ makes us acknowledge of our natural shortcomings, the author argues, and pushes us to become better. I’m not sure but I think that being secular or atheist doesn’t necessarily mean we believe we are perfect as humans. We can choose not to believe in a Greater Presence/Power and still recognize we have our shortcomings. Moreover, the whole ‘Feast of Fools’ argument the author made concerning this point was just absurd. I mean, I do have respect for his book in general, and agree on some points, but this one, I just couldn’t. The ‘Feast of Fools’, which to me, only brings back the image of a festive event in Paris where Esmeralda saved Quasimodo from the humiliation of the people, with ‘Topsy Turvy’ as the opening song, is when, once in a year, the Church in medieval France, authorized its people to ‘go crazy’ so that they could be ‘decent’ for the rest of the year. And when I say ‘crazy’, I mean it in every aspect. Yes, even that, the S word you’re thinking of. The author seems to have a rather ‘tolerant’ view on this ‘arrangement’, where people are confined to do good most of the time, but are allowed this one crazy day… I mean, how perverted is this idea? I would rather be ‘mischievous’ all year long without really harming others, than saying my prayers at church for 364 days and spend one day making out with whoever is next to me.

Alas, the real Feast of Fools was much less ‘innocent’ than the one Clopin sings about in Walt Disney’s ‘Hunchback of Notre-Dame’

Unfortunately, to me, this is another strong perception I have of religion, especially Christianity. The followers are bound by so many limits and rules in their everyday lives that when they see the tiniest way out for just a split second, their craziness is beyond the ‘normal, average’ craziness. Look at the scandalous issue of pedophile priests and you’ll get my point.

As for education, yes, I truly regret that liberal studies as we call them are being avoided by students more and more, to the advantage of majors like ‘Business Management’ (and no, I will not hide my contempt for this department). It is sad that the four years the students have decided to spend in one of the safest and most enlightening institutions this society has managed to keep are being spent to prepare themselves for a job and not to acquire simply and purely, knowledge. Nevertheless, I don’t think religion has anything to do with this, less even when it comes to ‘fixing’ this situation.

Being busy listing all the teachings we could have from religion and faith of the religious, the author disregards some of its less positive aspects. One major fault I see in religion is its blindness.

Religion, far from preaching ‘universal’ values and love, is more about keeping the boundaries within a small group of the ‘selected ones’. No?

It is blind to the changes our society is going through and is desperately trying to hold on to ‘traditional’ and outdated values, claiming they are ‘religious’ values that cannot be changed. All of which is based on the Bible (once again, my criticism is directed towards Christianity, which is really, the only religion I know and am most comfortable to talk about), a book that was clearly written by people, like you and I, and not by God himself. The teachings may have applied back then, 2000 or more years ago, when people believed women were inferior to men or when homosexual relationships somehow seemed ‘unnatural’. The Bible, more than anything, is a historical book in many aspects, and while there is no harm in believing that Jesus turned water into wine or walked above water, it cannot and should not dictate every aspect of our social life. Religion is an institution that has seen changes through time and to appeal to more people in the 21st century, changes it needs again.

And yes, what I’ve said above is not about ‘religion’ in its ‘pure sense’ or the faith in God. It is about what people have made of religion and how they have used it as a tool. And yes, that is exactly my point. What the author preaches about religion in his book is exactly about the religion as people have shaped it. If religion in its purest sense is the belief in a deity, then, it has little to do with improving or mending some of the flaws that our current society has. Most of what he has cited about the goods of religion is simply about how to be a ‘decent human being’. Sure, if belonging to a religious group can help you become a more decent person, then, good for you, and have a blast. But atheists do not have to have a religion to perceive and understand the issues at hand, nor do they need to believe in God to bring about changes. Atheists can welcome strangers in their secular hobby groups at any time and atheist professors can inspire their students through an exalting semester on English Literature.

I do not intend to diminish the benefits a religion can have upon one individual. I cherish my own experience with it, but nothing much has changed for me, on a personal level, between the time I used to gladly ‘offer’ my Sundays to the church and now, when I heartily laugh at a somewhat offensive joke made on the retirement of the Pope. Trying to be a decent person and a decent member of the society does not and should not depend on whether you believe in God. It should depend on your belief in yourself.

PS: I just had to share this joke somewhere. I couldn’t do it on Facebook or Twitter, in the fear of offending more people than I would want to. I apologize in advance to Catholics who might find it offensive. But shed your ‘devotion’ to the greatest power of the Catholic Church for a second and let it sip in for just a while and it is pretty funny. 

“Given his anti-condom stance, we should have guessed that the Pope was someone that knew when to withdraw”. 

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