Books Editor John Gray reviews Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton in “The cult of unbelief” (New Statesman, 16 February 2012):
Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.
Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.
Or political calculation, on the part of some. Especially those who reject the intellectual tolerance dissenting churches have achieved – among whom Darwin’s men are all too well represented, and with decreasing justification.
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