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Book summary: Religion for atheists

This is the first part of my summary of the book “Religion for atheists”, by Alain de Botton. It’s a book studying the good sides of religion, with the idea of importing/stealing them for the secular world. I loved the book, for what it’s worth.

This first post is going to cover the most important ideas in the book. Later posts will cover the book chapter by chapter, more in detail.

Atheists’ relationship to religion

It must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.

Why religions exist

We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and haven’t been solved by any secular society: the need to live together in harmony, despite our selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain.

Pain

Pain is aggravated by a sense that we are alone in experiencing it. The Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly and representing aspects of humanity and of ourselves which we are tempted to deny.

Education and reminders

We have a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance actually to do it, whether through weakness or absent-mindedness (Akrasia). Thus, there’s much value in education as reminding us of things “we already know”, as opposed to giving us new knowledge.

We hold to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves if we think that we are always above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders.

Institutions have a much wider-ranging influence than books, and can give us a system of active reminders.

Fearing that these reminders are a violation of spontaneity is nonsense. Our lack of freedom is not the problem in most cases, it’s having enough wisdom to know how to exploit our freedom.

Wisdom vs. material improvements

The secular world is afraid of teaching wisdom (as opposed to knowledge), and focuses instead on material improvements. But as good as those are, that doesn’t mean that our lives are less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than before. For example, travelling could be existencial healing (wisdom), not merely entertainment or relaxation (material enjoyment/improvement).

Auguste Comte thought that capitalism had aggravated people’s competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them for their communities, traditions, and their sympathies with nature.

Conclusion: steal from religions

Many of the problems of the modern soul can be successfully addressed by solutions put forward by religions. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind and it’s intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.

And that’s it for the main ideas of the book. Later posts will go chapter by chapter, discussing it in more detail.