The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 13, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Both Thumbs Up for “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists,” which has received harsh criticisms from the likes of David Brooks (the NYT review) and The Economist, is an insightful and moving treatment of wisdom without doctrine.  At the outset, de Botton dispenses with the most frequent subject of engagement for today’s vocal atheists–arguments with believers against the existence of God–and elaborates on the more fundamental question for atheists: So now what?

De Botton writes: “[T]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”  (p. 11)  Although de Botton talks of “argument,” he sets his sights on a post-theistic discussion of proper nurturance of our quite material and mortal souls.  De Botton’s title for his first chapter “Wisdom Without Doctrine” frames his endeavor.

By pursuing wisdom, de Botton invokes an old-fashioned concept.  His is a contemporary exposition on the ancient (and somewhat out-of-mode) philosophical question of “the good life.”  Understood this way, de Botton is offering the opening voice in a Platonic-style dialog.  His work is an invitation to engage and, of course, disagree with but not dismiss the ideas he presents.  Taken up with the intended spirit, Religion for Atheists has much to offer.

De Botton is a lucid and incisive writer.  So, if nothing else, his writing craft is pleasing. His aphoristic essays provide many thoughtful nuggets to reflect on.  Challenging the commercialization of the public sphere, de Botton explains, “In truth, we are all fragile in our commitments and suffer from a weakness of will in relation to the siren calls of advertising, an ill-tempered three-year-old entranced by the sight of a farmyard play set with inflatable dog kennel as much as a forty-two-year-old captivated by the possibilities of a barbecue set with added tongs and hotplate.”  (p. 88)

The marketization of almost every aspect of secular society is a key concern.  De Botton is troubled that the secular world appears to be abandoning to the religious sphere all values except market ones.  He writes, “[W]e have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm.”  (p. 15)   And later, “One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community.  We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.” (p. 23)

To counter the perceived secular trend toward ruthless pursuit of individualistic ends, de Botton reappropriates “agape”–an ancient Greek concept itself appropriated by early Christians to refer to the self-sacrificing love of God for humanity.  Refigured by de Botton, agape would mean an un-self-involved love of humanity by humanity.  An analog would be the Buddhist emphasis on all-embracing compassion.  To de Botton, we urgently need institutions designed to help cultivate this wide-armed love and compassion.  Why? Because we are fallen in our natures, fundamentally sinful in a purely secular sense.  Without corrective institutions, we tend to the selfish and venal and petty.

At the same time, even in the wealthy West, we suffer in our vulnerability and need mercy.  In his chapter “Tenderness,” de Botton details an imagined scene in a centuries-old chapel on a town backstreet, where a middle-aged man “shakes down his umbrella and steps inside . . . The man is exhausted.  His joints ache.  He feels weak, vulnerable and close to tears.  No single event has brought him to this point, just a run of minor humiliations that have cumulatively contributed to an overwhelming sense of mediocrity, superfluousness and self-hatred.”  With striking emotional insight, de Botton then outlines the subtle failures that have led this mid-life everyman to despair.  As a result, “He wants to fall asleep and be held.  He wants to cry.  He wants to be forgiven and reassured.  There is music playing . . . the aria ‘Ebarme dich, mein Gott’ from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He searches for ideas he can cling to, but nothing seems solid.  He is unable to think logically and even making the effort to do so has become more than he can bear.”  In this state beyond reason, the tender image of the Virgin offers him solace.  (p. 166-167)

In this single, lyrical passage, de Botton captures a common, lived experience well-addressed by religion, which atheism/secular humanism, if they are to flourish, must find ways to fulfill, rather than rebuff.  De Botton lectures, “By contrast with religion, atheism is prone to seem coldly impatient with our neediness.  The longing for comfort which lies at the heart of the Marian cult seems perilously regressive and at odds with the rational engagement with existence on which atheists pride themselves.  Mary and her cohorts have been framed as symptoms of urges which adults ought quickly to outgrow.” (p. 173)

For the truth of de Botton’s characterization, one need only remember the American Atheist’s “You KNOW It’s A Myth” Christmas-time billboard campaign.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, while not perfect in all its particulars, is a powerful and much-needed antidote to the prevailing curmudgeonly atheist approach.

De Botton recognizes that our spiritual needs do not lapse along with superstitious belief, and atheism and secular humanism will never replace religion until the secular sphere is actually able to replace religion.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a heartfelt and welcome engagement with this dilemma.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Both Thumbs Up for “Religion for Atheists” (sannejohnson.wordpress.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintDiggPinterestLinkedInRedditStumbleUponTumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

    Pingback by Some Thoughts on Religion from the Dude Behind the Dude Behind MrMary « A Spoonful of Suga — May 16, 2012 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

  2. […] Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Both Thumbs Up for “Religion for Atheists” (sannejohnson.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Synthetic Spirituality: Is it New Wine in Old Skins or Something Else? | Social Behavioral Patterns–How to Understand Culture and Behaviors — May 31, 2012 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

  3. Spiritual life is quite unique because it embodies a life that is free from being to materialistic. :*,::

    Yours trully
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    Comment by Luz Fobes — July 24, 2012 @ 6:24 am | Reply


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