Do atheists need religion?

I was in no hurry to read this book – Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. It got such bad reviews. And I really wasn’t impressed by Alain de Botton’s contribution to public debate – on TV and in the media. However, an atheist friend recommended the book and, although I don’t think she had finished reading it, she was impressed with the book’s arguments. Or at least the problems the author identified for atheists living in a secular society.

So, out of a sense of responsibility I purchased and read it.

My conclusion – a waste of money and time!

I don’t intend this to be a review of the book. For that I recommend reading Martin S Pribble’s thoughtful review (Religion For Atheists). As an aside, I followed Martin’s reading of this book via his Twitter comments. First time I have come across a Twitter book review! I think it sort of works – at least when the reader gets emotional about what he or she is reading.

Sufficient to say that de Botton sets up straw men – an idealised, perfect religion (mostly Christianity) and a deficient, sterile, secular society. His only objection to religion appears to be their supernatural stories. So his answer to the worlds’ problems is to ditch supernaturalism but adopt the remaining institutions, buildings, funding structures, social relationships, moral messages, music and art of religion (particularly Christianity). As is! Artificially.

My atheist friend often comments on the need in our secular society to develop institutions which provide for the social needs of people. Their desire for community and charity. So I can see why she was, at least initially, attracted to this book. It’s just that I can’t see how de Botton’s utopia (religion with all its trappings except its gods) provides this, or is even possible.

Personally I agree that modern society needs to provide more in the way of institutions, ceremony and even buildings which appeal to our desire for community and significance. But that is not unique to modern society – it has always been the case – especially as the old institutions often did not fulfil these promises, or were even quite evil.

The point is that the most appropriate ceremonies, institutions and culture for these purposes are the ones that are built by the existing society, not artificially transplanted into it. And we are building such institutions, ceremonies, etc., in our modern, pluralist, secular society.

Religion needs secularism – and can learn from it

Why should we artificially transplant something from a religion (after removing its supernatural content) when we can do better? Consider modern ceremonies like weddings and funerals in this country. They have become a lot more secular – even where they are performed in a Church. We seem to have welcomed with open arms the secular concept of remembering and celebrating the life of a deceased person in our funerals. Friends and family give their stories and feelings. New Zealand funerals today are far more satisfying than those in the old days which simply had the religious purpose of sending the person of into the “afterlife.”

The church has noticed and adopted many of the features of secular funerals and other ceremonies. Incorporated them into their own ceremonies.

There are many other examples. The point is that – yes, we do need more and better institutions and ceremonies which contribute to our human need for community and friendship. We do need more buildings, art and ethical commentary appealing to those needs. It’s a matter of more of what we are doing well, not artificially transplanting from old and moribund institutions and ideologies. And its a matter of creating these new institutions and culture in a way that is inclusive – not the exclusiveness “them vs us” of the religious approaches.

So, my recommendation is that you should give this book a miss, unless you feel a responsibility to read it like I did. At least I will now be able to discuss the book and my reactions intelligently when I next see my atheist friend.

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8 responses to “Do atheists need religion?

  1. Culture is What it is. If you remove the gods and still provide the arts, music, architecture, gathering places, ceremonies of the culture. counsel your community and provide family services; With proper taxation Secular society can thrive just like religion did.


  2. Thank you for confirming my suspicions. I had only heard of the book, but after watching de Button on a TED Talk, I had reached the conclusion that his ideas were lacking in conviction and without character. All he really implies, is that we should adopt the marketing strategies of religion into secular life.
    The whole of society needs to be more secular.


  3. I have not read De Botton but have read several critiques of his book including those by Martin S. Pribble that you reference.
    I strongly agree with your point in that I see a degree of ritual as inherently desirable to the human condition. Rites of passage ceremonies have been known in all cultures through all of recorded human history.

    What we need is greater awareness of, and availability of secular humanist celebrants of naming, coming of age, marriage and funeral ceremonies.

    What we absolutely don’t need to do is ritualise the trivial, create holy places, make art sacred or allow art to have taboos. After all, one of the major reasons that Islam is such a major religion is that if you ritualise such mundane things as using the toilet, it becomes very difficult psychologically, for a child brought up that way to escape it’s conditioning even as an adult. And isn’t cultivating free and critical thinking adults one of the main things the secular/atheist/free-thinking community is try to do?


  4. I thing De Botton has contributed something to the discussion.

    I think the idea of ritual plays heavily for many people. I always wonder why people don’t get why they think like they do: particularly their genetic drivers and environmental programming. That they don’t have to be slave to these things, if first they recognise then and choose to act.

    For me it is quite sad that people allow rituals to dictate the rhythm and pattern of their life.

    Does the universe give a flying f##k about such rituals…….I think not. The counter argument is that for many the rituals provide an anchor/reference point, like a child who will not give up the perception of the comfort these routines seem to offer, too scared to literally let go. A sort of, I don’t what to let go it feels safe with them, therefore never daring to see what’s on the other side.

    For me I have a deep distrust of any so called ritual…………….I find myself becoming defiant and resisting the crowd/group dynamic……………for me better to stand on the outside looking in?? At this point others will say I need some time on the shrink couch??
    Good post 🙂


  5. One of the down sides of religion is that it’s divisive when there’s more than one. Exclusive groups present barriers to empathy. Does de Botton address this aspect of religion?


  6. No he doesn’t Gordon. He has really nothing negative to say about religion which will turn even sympathetic readers away as we can all find examples of bad religious activity, institutions and ceremonies.


  7. We have lots of places in secular society where we can celebrate together:
    pubs, clubs etc


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