“The challenge facing atheists is how to reverse the process of religious colonization: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.”
Despite the title, Religion for Atheists is in no way an attempt to convert non-believers. Stated bluntly, and up front, de Botton writes that “of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.” As such, there are no arguments about the truth of religion; de Botton begins with a basic assumption of atheism, and from there proceeds to examine religious traditions and rituals with an eye to incorporating them into secular culture, in order to enhance community, compassion, education, art and architecture, among others. De Botton draws examples from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, and imagines secular institutions and rituals which would imitate the emotional resonance of religion without the supernatural beliefs.
Although atheists often critique theists for cherry-picking their beliefs—shellfish are fine now that we have refrigeration, but homosexual acts are definitely still sinful—removing the assumption of divine revelation does leave atheists free to borrow selectively from religion if they so desire. The problem here is to get atheists to agree about the aspects of religions that are worth emulating, particularly if, like de Botton, you want these secular rituals to be part of large institutions with a wide reach and deep pockets. De Botton offers a number of suggestions, some of which were intriguing and insightful, but others singled out areas in which religion has only been arguably successful, or where it has been more adept in theory than in deed. For example, he uses the Catholic Mass as an example of a unifying experience which erases divisions such as race and class, but in practice many congregations are segregated by the neighbourhoods from which they draw attendees. In this sense, his book is imbued with a sense of nostalgia for something which may never have actually existed except as an ideal. Additionally, many of his secular alternatives felt trivial and overly simplistic, lacking the significance of the rituals they were designed to emulate.
Over all, de Botton’s attitude towards religious practices consists of entirely too much reverence, and not enough criticism. Although he advocates “selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts,” he wholly fails to account for how his proposed secular saints and rituals will avoid practices of indoctrination and deification, and encourage the critical thinking that is essential to most atheists’ conceptions of secularism. Despite a chapter on the virtues of pessimism, it is all too easy to imagine this philosophy blithely and optimistically ushering in a “benevolent” secular totalitarianism of ritual and prescription. Those of a religious persuasion will have no need for these ideas, and those of a more atheistic or agnostic bent will find that de Botton’s suggestions lack the rigour of thought they would expect from a fellow skeptic. For those atheists who hear the siren call of ritual and tradition, but cannot bring themselves to believe in God, de Botton’s ideas may find some appeal, but this book is not otherwise recommended.
Looking for more books about secular thought? I recommend The Portable Atheist, a collection of essays and excerpts edited by Christopher Hitchens.