Religion for Atheists | Atheism for the Religious…

I’ve not yet read the full book that Alain de Botton has been promoting recently, but I’ve read a number of interviews and heard him speak, and browsed his website: and I wanted to post a couple of first-thoughts about his thesis.

Firstly, he’s being unashamed to say that he is ‘picking and mixing’ from different religions. As he puts here, ‘even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?’

It seems that there is a twin move here. Atheists like de Botton are moving towards religion, to try to colonise the secular space which still values ritual, and many religious people are moving towards an atheist reading of their faith… both agree that ‘God is dead’… but what to do with the carcass?

It seems to me that de Botton and others want to pick over the beautiful, to grab rituals and art and the ‘awe-some.’ One of de Botton’s earlier books, which I like a lot, is The Consolations of Philosophy, and I wonder now if this is simply an upgrade: religion as no more than consolation. We feel lonely, we suffer, we don’t earn enough…so here’s a smash and grab on some religious ideas that seem to have helped console people in the past.

I don’t think this is enough. I think religion as consolation is little more than religion as emotional crutch. It’s low challenge, middle-class angst with stained glass windows, and intellectually and psychologically impoverished.

The religious who are turning to an atheist reading of their faith are doing something different. God is dead, but that means that we have to take up the challenges of that absence… and that’s perhaps a more demanding road. I can’t speak from anything more than a Christian perspective on this, but it seems to me that this is not so much gaining ‘ahhh’ moments from beautiful buildings, but taking a long hard look at the scorched earth once those buildings have been torched, and wondering what is left.

Because an atheist reading of Christianity is not about polite rituals and ‘big society’ moments of collective goo. It is not about human beings rejecting God and becoming atheists. It is about God rejecting God and becoming an atheist himself. The core of Christianity is as radical as that. Jesus beat de Botton to ‘religion for atheists’ by about 2000 years; the problem is, the path he set out was so challenging that it has been almost totally rejected. Why? Because the move from religion to an atheist reading of religion is not about experiencing the sacred in the remains of religious beauty, but about experiencing the abandonment and desolation, the responsibility to the rest of humanity, when we realise the sacred is not found in the stain glass, but in the slum outside the church.

God’s life created fissures within society between the believers and unbelievers. It seems God’s death will be no less divisive… but this time I wonder if the polite ‘crutch’ accusation will be made the other way.


5 responses to “Religion for Atheists | Atheism for the Religious…”

  1. That’s a fascinating and beautiful argument. I agree with it all and can entirely see the direction of your thought. The contrast between the beautiful stained glass vs. the slum is an apposite one – and appeals to me personally a lot. I don’t think we’re in conflict on this one.

  2. Obviously I want to read the book – and will do so. And for the move towards the same centre from the other side can I recommend Peter Rollins’ ‘Insurrection

    While I think there is similar intention, I think there could be conflict in practical outcome – though you may well deal with that in the book. Perhaps from the religious side there is a grief that leads to action? Whereas from the atheist looking towards religion, there is consumption of rituals, but perhaps no spur to serve the other. But I may be wrong.

  3. Kester, I love your phrase in the comment above: ‘a grief that leads to action.’ Very interested in that.

  4. Thanks for this Kester. I think the way you position a certain antagonism here between those who might seek an emotional and psychological consolation in the rituals of religion and those who see Christianity as the ripping apart of such consolations, confronting us with the horror of existence and asking that we affirm existence regardless is is insightful.

    I am a huge fan of Alain De Botton for all that he has done to bring reason, philosophical thought and the joy of reflection to so many people. The School of Life is deeply important and his work is gift. That said I would love to engage critically with this book. Like you I currently only know it through interviews and snippets, but my initial thoughts are that De Botton might simply be revealing on of the worst kept secrets of the Anglican Church… that most of the ministers don’t really believe, but enjoy the liturgical dance (that is, of course, a little pejorative but I do remember a particularly good episode of “Yes Minister” where this was the central joke). I can imagine some Priests pulling De Botton aside and telling him off, not for attacking their faith, but for revealing their secret!

    I think that De Botton is writing about a wide spread reality embraced privately by many religious people (at least in the more traditional churches). I am very interested in exposing this reality, however for different purposes. Instead of seeing this as positive I see it as a way of insulating us from the traumatic heart of the Christian event… that is it not an intellectual separation from the divine accompanied by psychological way of buffering that experience, but rather the existential experience of that separation regardless of our intellectual claims (“My God, my God… being an intellectual affirmation of presence with the felt loss of that presence).

    My own interest is the reading of Christianity that we find in people like Eagleton, Zizek and Badiou.

  5. Brilliant post, Kester!

    Kester and Peter, Brian Mountford, the vicar at Oxford’s biggest church, wrote a book about the nonbeliever who likes church last year called The Christian Atheist. It’s worth a quick read.