Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, by Alain de Botton

Though religion has always been used to divide and conquer populaces for the sake of political power and religious doctrine often oppresses those who are believed to be unrepentant sinners, much of what religion has given society is good. Humans like rules, and religion is full of rules. Rules, or their violation, feed our self-concept. After all, if we don’t know what is commonly understood to be socially or morally acceptable, how would we know if the things we think, feel, and do are “normal”? Historically, religion has provided rules about right and wrong as well as structure through doctrine and through the community nature of formalized religious affiliation, which engenders group activities such as meals, holiday celebrations, and volunteer work. In addition, religion has fed art, architecture, philosophy, and literature; and certainly the existence or nonexistence of God has fueled the minds of more than a few scientists in their quest for truth.

In Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton tackles the sticky issue of what atheists miss when they turn their backs on religion and what many modern societies are missing as a result of widespread secular humanism. “Attempting to prove the non-existence of God can be an entertaining activity for atheists. ... Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t,” he writes in Chapter I, “Religion Without Doctrine.”

In nine subsequent, broadly labeled chapters—including “Community,” “Kindness,” “Tenderness,” and “Perspective”—de Botton uses an amused but critical tone to point out that in the Western world, at least, we are thoroughly alienated from one another. We’re afraid of strangers and suspicious of our neighbors. We lock ourselves away in our homes and relate to the outside world mainly through the distorted lens of media. He suggests embracing celebration and ritual as a means of connection while making it clear that this book is no pious attempt to convince atheists to come to the Lord. Insisting that the darkness within religious faith and doubt can teach us to accept that existence might not be solely about happiness, he singles out secular Americans as “perhaps the most anxious and disappointed people on earth, for their nation infuses them with the most extreme hopes about what they may be able to achieve in their working lives and relationships.”

De Botton says art museums can be our new churches, though he thinks a more intuitive system of organization would help us engage more holistically with the art and ourselves. Instead of arranging art according to historical period or movement, its arrangement should reflect psychology and experience. An illustration depicts his idea for a new layout for the Tate Modern in London that includes galleries of suffering, compassion, fear, love, and self-knowledge. De Botton delves deeply and joyfully into his subject matter, displaying his knowledge of religious texts as well as human nature and our need for compassion even when we tell ourselves we don’t need anyone or anything. He doesn’t lecture, but he delights in pointing out our longings and foibles, and he seems to genuinely desire to improve the state of our lives.


Pantheon Books, 320 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 05/25/2012