5 Religious Concepts That Atheists Can Use from Alain de Botton (1969-)

I always enjoy Alain de Botton’s books and liked this article in today’s Huffington Post that might act as some bridge between religious believers and non-believers. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alain-de-botton/5-religious-ideas-atheist_b_1310460.html?ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=030212&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’. Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists. 

I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one concludes that he evidently doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm. 

In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.

Here are five:

Religions are supremely effective at education, because they know that we forget everything. They are based around rehearsal, repetition, oratory and calendars. They create appointments for us to re-encounter the most significant ideas. Every day has a spiritual agenda. In the secular world, we think you can send someone to school or university for a few years and it will then stick with you for forty years. It won’t. Our minds are like sieves, yet we unfairly associate repetition with being stifled. The Jewish or Catholic calendars are masterpieces of synchronisation: every day brings us back round to some important idea. You might need to repeat important truths 4 or 8 times a day.

Mind & Body
Religions remember we have bodies and therefore integrate their insights with physical practices. In Zen Buddhism, you don’t just hear lectures: you have a tea ceremony where the drinking of a beverage underpins a philosophical lesson. In Judaism, you don’t only atone, you do so by plunging yourself into a mikveh bath to ‘cleanse yourself’. So religions appear to know that if you want to reach the mind, you have to acknowledge the overwhelming role that the body and emotions have over us.

The secular world isn’t short of bars and restaurants, but we’re singularly bad at any kind of regular way of turning strangers into friends. We know from parties that people don’t talk to each other until there’s a good host that does the introduction. Religions function as hosts: their buildings and rituals allow us to express a latent sociability which lies beneath our cold exteriors. Moreover, unlike Facebook, they don’t introduce us only to people with whom we already have much in common. At their best moments, they confront us with The Other, and help to show that there is humanity in all of us.

Art and Museums
Christianity never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution (i.e. Titian). Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: ‘Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like’. ‘Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage’. ‘Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar’. The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself as a piece of art. Instead of refuting instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.

This leads to a suggestion: what if modern museums of art kept in mind the example of the didactic function of Christian art, in order once in a while to reframe how they presented their collections? Would it ruin a Rothko to highlight for an audience the function that Rothko himself declared that he hoped his art would have: that of allowing the viewer a moment of communion around an echo of the suffering of our species? 

Religions have shown a surprising degree of sympathy for our impulse to travel. They have accepted that we cannot achieve everything by staying at home. Nevertheless, unlike secularists, the religious have singularly failed to see the business of travelling as in any way straightforward or effortless. They have insisted with alien vigour on the profound gravity of going on a trip and have channelled the raw impulse to take off into a myriad of rituals, whose examination could prompt us to reflect on our own habits and sharply alter where and how we decided to travel next. We all want travel to change us, religions honour this wish properly.

Atheists need to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true. Many of the organizational solutions to the ills of the soul put forward by religions are open to being shorn of the supernatural structure in which they first emerged and still retain their value and interest. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_de_Botton

This is Alain:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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6 Responses to 5 Religious Concepts That Atheists Can Use from Alain de Botton (1969-)

  1. Tony Gee says:

    “Religion” what is it any way?

    There is so many who can count them all, and the smallest amount is that of what Alain de Botton is talking about.

    Simply apply what he said to the religion of say, Government, Self, Education it’s all relative.

    • Good to hear from you again Tony. Yes there is a lot to religion and I think all Alain is talking about is what are the most impactful things that can carry over to those outside religion. His five were I guess his top five; someone else might have others. I particularly liked his education learning, because it applies to what I am trying to do in this blog: change how we handle conflict. And there he is telling me I have to build conflict processes that are founded in daily repetition: wow that is tough! Every day someone working through one of my conflict processes….Thanks for the thought

  2. Tony Gee says:

    When I hear someone talk about religion I can’t help but think of all ones, subscribe to.

    I would then like to put my two cents in…I feel it apply s, your stated goal was to help, ” that might act as some bridge between religious believers and non-believers.” So as that as the premise I only stated the obvious that lets say government, education and self are many’s religion.

    As you well know I believe in small government, don’t understand how people see government as a religion or more directly, as their savior.

    I can see people seeing themselves or education as savior, but government? given the power to take from one to give to another and we are to TRUST them who are in office.

    If I give government the power to take from one group and give to me, then I give them the power to take from me. It might not be next year but when all has been taken from, “the rich b*#*ards”, they will come after me and you, then “the real b*#*ards”. Just look at Greece, France and Italy.

    • @Tony. Interesting points. I guess coming from Europe originally, I see government differently and I see it as something that holds the ring against corporations that are too big and powerful, though of course the corporations typically in the US buy political influence, so government is partly corporate. Teddy Roosevelt was anti monopoly in this way too.

      Anyway, I guess the other thing about Europe is that there 20 or so countries and they all have different approaches, different levels of government involvement from Sweden where the government is very dominant in daily life to Switzerland where it is much less so. And having done business in all of those 20 odd countries, I can tell you that in the US the problem is no one knows about this variety and gets worried that somehow government confiscates. That’s not how it feels anywhere in Europe. It is a million miles from the old Communist Eastern Europe but you would never realize that from conservative commentators in the US.

      In some places like Germany the government seems very efficient and reasonable cost; in other like Italy it feels very corrupt; in Sweden it feels very safe but a tad interfering and so on. Government is not one thing and the tragedy is often that conservatives who should be part of making government more efficient instead they demonize it and pretend it is not necessary. Try living in Beijing without EPA pollution control. It is horrendous my friends who live there tell me. And of course President Nixon founded the EPA not the Democrats.

      Over all the US expects Social Security, Medicare and a big military. These three take up most of Federal Spending. But most US citizens are not willing to pay the necessary taxes to support what they want so they get big deficits. It is therefore easy to raise up anti-tax emotion, but no one is willing to say what they will do without…indeed the Tea Party members of Congress are just as bad at pork spending for their districts as anyone and most are now deeply locally unpopular for not getting much done. While in Europe Greece, Ireland and Italy had balanced government udgets before the crash and it was private bank debt that did them in, though of course now they have deficits because tax revenue is down with economy and unemployment pay up.

      Anyway, my point is that the balance between government and individual can be very varied and is not simple or something you can say is all good or all bad. And don’t believe all you read in the media… but you know that already. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  3. Tony Gee says:

    I could and will agree with you. That in Europe it may work but we have The Constitution which dictates differently then the countries in Europe. Here is were I mean about religion, The government “Religion” I was referring to that we differ on. I can’t grasp the “feudal government religion” you and/or others may “believe” in.

    I feel it is the states who should have the say in many of the laws congress passes, and furthermore congress has no legal grounds under The Constitution for many of the laws they sent to the Pres. (R or D) who signs into law. Europe has small countries you agreeably mention Sweden, Germany. Could you imagine if all the European countries had to respect the laws coming from a centralized government out of say, Berlin or Athens. And the separate countries were no longer individual, the people were bound by the central government. There would be out rage. We the 50 states are no different we are to be the “United States” separate but United by The Constitution. To many of us including those who has sworn to uphold it, do not respect the document that we are bound by.

    We are watching it all play out before us with this healthcare bill coined, “Obamacare. Is their a Constitutional Right for free healthcare. What was Constitutional about welfare, social security. I agree a good thing but that does not make it Constitutional. Many of the laws Bills that the Presidents have signed over the years should never have been passed but rather gone thru Constitutional Amendment process. Like wise it is my understanding if the Supreme Court rules a Law is unconditional then it is void and needs to go back to the legislators to draw a new law that will be constitutional.

  4. @Tony. Your comments always make me think. For the record, feudalism was abolished in England around 500 years ago, and you shouldn’t be fooled by the Queen. Most of Europe followed over the centuries. And abolished slavery before the US did. So feudal Europe ain’t, though I can see the reason you might think our attitude to the State has that origin. It doesn’t.

    By the way, the European Union is actually trying to do what you suggest and it is causing resistance, to say the least, to the idea of a United States of Europe.

    But if we look at individual European countries, then only Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland were not occupied by the Germans. So most of Europe had to make new constitutions after the war. They all have constitutions with rights, checks and balances primarily aimed at avoiding fascism or communism. So in Europe, having survived fascism 1940-45, and faced off to communism between 1945-89, we aim for a Middle Way. Having seen the real thing, we laugh when folk here call Obama a communist. Try telling that to the Poles or East Germans. And we think the best way to see off fascism and communism is to create a welfare state that prevents the extreme poverty that feeds both fascism and communism. So our history makes us different, though after the Great Depression, essentially Roosevelt took the US into a similar place for the same reasons. He missed healthcare because the Southern Democrats thought it meant racially integrated hospitals and so blocked it.

    Now most Europeans’ ‘religion’ as you call it, could not contemplate the end of state health care. Indeed any government that tried that would face a revolution. And I guess what I and Europeans find strange is the idea that I should be prepared to let my wife or children or myself die from lack of healthcare for the sake of a constitutional principle. We just don’t get it. Especially as Medicare is a state socialist healthcare system that everyone here likes, and it seems there would be a revolution if that were threatened. So we don’t see anything special about Obamacare. It is identical to what Mitt Romney put into Massachusetts. Is similar to what they have in capitalist Switzerland and is more conservative than Medicare.

    Now if you still want to assert States Rights, I guess my worry is China. A disunited USA hung up on State’s Rights, would be easy meat to China as she grows in power. Even California or New York is no match for China. So I deeply believe in the United States, to which I swore allegiance. I didn’t swear allegiance to my state. And I have no real time for State’s Rights. That is my practical approach; not a lawyer’s one as to what the Constitution says. But as a Supreme Court judge once said: ‘The Constitution is not a suicide note’ and if State’s Rights hand over the world to China, I say ‘to hell with them’.

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