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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