Congratulations must go out to the winner of our June Love2Read Book review contest, Marie Hutchison, who wrote a thoughtful piece about Alain de Botton’s latest book. In this book, Alain de Botton dreams of a society where tolerance and community are key.
Her winning review can be read below:
‘Religion for Athiests’ by Alain de Botton
This book is a history, touching all religions and many countries over time. Alain de Botton is well read, well travelled and a highly intelligent person who has a great depth of perception of religion and how it aids humanity. It shows how religion developed, why it developed, and how it blends together societies and the individuals in it, giving people outward looking attitudes to life instead of having inward thoughts and habits. He stresses the need for community in this modern world of large cities and the exponential increase in populations around the world.
Without religion, people feel isolated even with thousands of people around them, bringing an inner directed force and a miserable existence of loneliness and a separation of the individual from society. He states that religious ceremony and effort of attending places of worship give many a reason to get up in the morning and perhaps find a reason to smile at someone, spreading joy instead of sorrow. We could say that religion is used as an escape by many seeking comfort from an appalling situation in their lives, but if those people can escape for just a few minutes and their souls are uplifted then isn’t it worthwhile? Alain explains the comfort given to millions throughout the Christian community by the Madonna and Child paintings that are spread in churches around the world, and specifically, the Catholic Church, saving them from misery and pain. In touring Europe or Turkey for instance one is enthralled by the architecture – it’s majesty, the skill, and we gaze and wonder about the love and depth of reverence in every tile laid or each stone carved. How often have we ourselves been wrought by a trial too huge for us to cope with, and in the still of a sleepless night depend on the hope that a Saviour may help us through, and avert the terror?
Even if we consider ourselves atheists, or are regarded as such by others, we can think in terms of a helper of a spiritual nature in times of need. The comfort that prayer can bring in any religion is not just a form of escape, but a plea to heal a situation beyond human power. All people over time have had their spiritual leaders on whom they can call on in times of trouble, and some spirits are there in animals and fish and such, as well, to bind those in community to a common good. Buddhists are a large group of the world’s community working with people from ancient times, healing the mind with meditation, and the stillness of the soul that mindfulness can bring. Is this not an escape, I ask? The Wailing Wall for the Jewish can bring hope and the peace necessary to help in the solving of a personal problem or a much larger problem of the world and its many peoples.
We all know about the ancient Egyptians and their Gods, the Greeks and their Gods, the Gods that have taken countries to war, and will do so again, due to the enormity of a situation and the curse of a violence used to be the end of it; the desperation of those even with religion to state their claims on life and country. How could civilisation have progressed without the adoration of prophets like those of Jesus and Mohammed in those ancient times? Even though science has opened our minds to the organic nature of we humans, surely at times of need we should see the benefit of the spiritual in our midst. This is what Alain de Botton has expressed so convincingly in this novel, Religion for Atheists. He argues that the supernatural claims of religion are false but they do have important principles to teach the secular world. Humanism is an entirely human construct that allows people to live and let live, by the use of guidance, reassurance and kindness to others. We must all be aware and led by the love of our fellow man. This was so wisely put in the ancient poem Abou Ben Adhem written many years ago.
Over the twentieth century pastoral care has developed in the secular world and the introduction of the study of ethics in our schools and universities has become the new education of the soul. It was during the nineteenth century that the French sociologist Auguste Compte developed a Religion for Humanity, a religion based on helping others without the fear and retribution of dogma associated with some religions. He expressed the view that a society solely devoted to the accumulation of wealth and romantic love could “fall prey to untenable social maladies”. Isn’t that what we have today, without the guidance of religion or ethics? So the basis of religion is the care of the soul and Alain de Botton expresses the idea that the soul can be enriched by the use of principles of religion in the secular world. It is a case simply of love one another, and treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. I have taken his ideas a little further, and thinking of those who shelter in monasteries or nunneries feel that some of them may have decided to escape the troublesome world and opt for the peace and prayer of isolation. I do believe that we on Earth now can use the benefits of religious thought and practices to enlighten us and smooth over our worries whether atheists or not.