This is a wonderfully provocative book. Its author, the accomplished essayist Alain de Botton, can only be described as a lapsed secularist. Raised as a “committed atheist,” he remains skeptical of truth claims raised on behalf of religion.
“The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets. … Let us bluntly state that of course no religion is true in any god-given sense.”
Score one for Voltaire and Hitchens. But de Botton is far from simply rejecting religion: “The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religion sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling.”
If anything, this understates de Botton’s case. The book is an extended sermon on the truth that if God did not exist we would have to invent him – with the rider that He didn’t, so we did. More precisely, “we invented religion to serve two central needs, … the need to live together in communities … and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain.” “God may be dead,” but we need Him as much as ever.
The book consists of 10 essays, each devoted to a grand theme (Kindness, Education, Tenderness; dozens of black-and-white photographs illustrate the themes) and offering insights culled from traditional religions. To avoid dilettantism, de Botton sensibly confines himself to canvassing just three: Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism.
When I call de Botton a lapsed secularist, I refer to his recognition that for all its blandishments, science cannot replace religion. In its place it has generated a shallow rationalistic optimism.
Optimism, de Botton argues, is the great enemy of our happiness. Besides generating expectations of life as doomed as they are foolish, it ignores the truth about us that matters most. It encourages us to pretend that we are deathless. It thus fosters a distinctively modern form of self-torture, a neglect of the source of the sorrow of life which leaves that sorrow to fester untended. And by glorifying individual freedom over communal virtue, this rationalism leaves the human soul unformed and undirected, easy prey to the whims of careerism and commercialism.
De Botton excels at exposing the emptiness of contemporary self-congratulation. He has a fine eye for the senselessness of hypermodern urban life, including such key institutions as universities, museums, even hotels. All are pervaded by our refusal to face our common mortality in favour of immersion in the ephemeral.
Religion, by contrast, addresses that mortality while seeking to find purpose in it. De Botton argues persuasively that the old religions deployed understandings of every practical aspect of life superior to those of the modern world. Above all they concerned themselves with education, in the broadest, deepest and most holistic sense of the term. To this end, they employed a rich arsenal of elevating experiences. His primary example of an effective means of educating to community, for instance, is the Catholic mass. He makes a convincing case for it.
Less convincing are de Botton’s own positive suggestions, which flirt with self-parody. He proposes secular versions of a wide range of religious practices. These range from the mildly useful (that museums follow churches in organizing their collections by theme rather than period) through the whimsical (an “Agape Restaurant” that would capture the spirit of communal religious feasts) to the bizarre (Temples of Perspective, to Love, to Thought etc., secular churches for a post-religious society).
There, I’ve said it: “post-religious.” While de Botton never uses the term, it captures the spirit of his program. He longs to have it both ways, combining the rationalism and secularism of science with the consolations and moral groundedness of religion.
At the end of the book, de Botton offers quite an astonishing (near-) confession. His project draws inspiration from the eccentric French thinker Auguste Comte (1797-1859). Comte was the erstwhile founder of a secular church modelled on Roman Catholicism. This “religion of humanity” would have established “churches for the people” and a vast new secular priesthood to support them. Like the actual Church it would have aspired to direct every aspect of human life, but to secular humanist ends.
De Botton distances himself from Comte, acknowledging that he wasn’t quite sane. Still, it’s clear that he admires him greatly. Alas, Comte’s “religion of humanity” got nowhere. Can de Botton hope to do better? Will religion without faith ever escape being Hamlet without the prince?
Clifford Orwin teaches political science and Jewish studies at the University of Toronto and is a Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Much of his teaching is devoted to the thought of the Hebrew Bible and to religion’s challenge to philosophy.