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Interview: Atheist Alain de Botton cases religion’s joint for something worth stealing …

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Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

In an interview with John Allemang (Globe and Mail, March 2, 2012), Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists responds,

What should atheists learn from religion – what’s worth stealing?

Religion understands we need guidance, that we can’t get through this life without help in challenging moments. The vulnerability and fragility of being human are right at the centre of religious analysis. Obviously there’s a supernatural component as well, the reassurance about the next life. But there’s also interesting stuff going on about community, holding people together in a group, breaking through the feeling of loneliness. There’s reassurance about marriage, relationships and children. And throughout religious practice, there’s an emphasis on wisdom: A lot of religion is about finding peace in a noisy world, about being alone in silence, about collecting one’s thoughts and finding a focus. And you find that religion uses rather unorthodox methods to teach people stuff: architecture, art, music, food, certain clothing. Atheists often think that religions are just about a book, so we must write a book to make the whole edifice fall apart. But religion is only secondarily about a book.

The last two sentences are a zinger, following a generally clueless attempt to explain religion: “… only secondarily about a book?” Tell that to the many Islamists who have rioted and murdered on hearing that the Koran was burned or that Mohammed was mocked in a cartoon, somewhere or other on the planet …

Materialist atheists complain that interviewers are not hard enough on religious figures who endorse long-ago miracles. But no one alive is a witness or can check out the facts anyway. By contrast, puffball interviews with atheists often feature the genuine offense to good journalism that is illustrated here: The interviewer does not pick up on the patent conflict between the atheist’s statement and well-publicized current events.

You’re very big on the religious concept of humility. What’s the point of feeling insignificant?

It’s an important emotion. Feeling very small in the face of something large, powerful and beyond one’s control is the uniting theme of religion. And I think that sensation is available to atheists through science and nature. In the modern world, people are unhappy because they’ve been promised a sense of control, that doesn’t deliver. They’ve been promised that their relationships will go well, that money leads to happiness, that work will be fulfilling. And yet for many of us, these promises don’t work out. So there’s tremendous relief in the reminders of why that might be: Though we can put men on the moon, we’re quite powerless in other areas.

There is a huge difference between humility before God and feeling small in the face of science and nature. People who feel humble before God think he takes an interest in them and his opinion matters; no sane person expects that of abstractions like science or nature.

As a result, feeling small before science leads to outrages like eugenics and social engineering, on the premise that the guys in the lab coats really should decide for you. And feeling small before nature leads to fascist rule where power is the only principle, because no one expects to be judged by any other standard.

Yes, it’s true that religions often promise us a lot in the afterlife. But they’re also pretty realistic about what we get in this life, more realistic than many secularist ideologies. As atheists, we can learn something from this welcome pessimism, while ditching the rosy optimism about the next world.

Rosy Optimism? Ah, there you are. Here’s someone I’d like you to meet: Helen Damnation. More.

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3 Replies to “Interview: Atheist Alain de Botton cases religion’s joint for something worth stealing …

  1. 1
    Barb says:

    Atheists may think (wrongly) that religion is all about a book but it’s far more than that. True faith is based on evidence, and works displaying faith follow naturally from that. I have about six translations of the Bible in my house right now. An atheist regime could take over and burn those Bibles in my front yard. Would I then become an atheist? No, I wouldn’t.

    “Feeling very small in the face of something large, powerful and beyond one’s control is the uniting theme of religion.”
    Hey, didn’t Carl Sagan dismissively state that humanity rested on a ‘pale blue dot’? Guess it’s not just religion that has (or needs) humility.

  2. 2
    Thomas Peters says:

    The next time Mr. de Botton finds himself sitting in a cathedral, he might consider that when he is looking up, the ultimate Someone is looking down upon him. Without a healthy sense of the transcendent, religious activity is nothing more than tactical exercise towards a pragmatic end. Looking for and expecting to be found by the Transcedent Creator-Redeemer of the Cosmos is hardly the same thing as a church potluck.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    I agree, most ‘religions’ are based on a ‘book’ or on rituals. But as far as true Christianity is concerned, it is the overriding claim of Christianity that it based on a ‘real’ relationship with the living God.

    THE EIGHT-FOLD WAY TO KNOWING GOD
    A Study From The Second Epistle of Peter, Chapter One by Lambert Dolphin
    Knowing God Personally and Intimately
    Excerpt: Can a person embark on a journey that leads to knowing God? The overwhelming claim of the Bible is yes! Not only can anyone of us know the Lord and the Creator of everything that exists, we are invited—even urged—each one of us, to know him intimately, personally and deeply.
    http://ldolphin.org/Eightfld.html

    HEARING THE VOICE OF GOD
    John 14:26 “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
    http://www.christian-marriage-.....estudy.pdf

    Perhaps Alain de Botton instead of just seeking superficial solace in religious ritual should dig a little deeper. He may be very surprised to learn that there is so much more to Christianity than any ritual or mere ‘book’ can capture;

    There Is More – Poem – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4102086/

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