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Book summary: Religion for atheists (II)

This is the second 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. See the first part, which discusses the most important ideas brought forward by the book.

This is the second post of the summary, and the first discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover five chapters: Wisdom without doctrine, Community, Kindness, Education, and Tenderness.

Wisdom without doctrine

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true. The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling. We can recognise that 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 deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. 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.

Community

It’s hard to build community and we are used to mingling with mostly people who are like us. We, as a society, are focused on success and status. We develop a desire to be famous and powerful when being “like everyone else” seems a distressing fate, when the norm is mediocre and depressing. If there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it’s because 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. But when we acknowledge them it brings us closer to our need for one another. Two ideas to steal:

  1. The Agape restaurant (too long to summarise here, see p. 43-50), inspired by early Masses, in which people shared a meal.
  2. Yom Kippur: Jews must review what they have done the previous year, and apologise for their bad actions, however small. Many things that would be too small to bring up again, but that hurt social relationships (things that we cannot quite forget, but that we cannot quite mention, either), would be mentioned and apologised for on this day.

Kindness

Our obsession with “freedom” makes us hold to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves in which we are always above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about kindness. We are not. Our lack of freedom is not the problem in most cases, it’s having enough wisdom to know how to exploit our freedom.

The myth of the original sin reminds us of how weak and broken we are, as opposed to the approach of the Enlightenment, which tells us that we are naturally good. The latter is depressing as a frame, because our flaws are evident and make us think that the problem is in ourselves. The former is healthier, because it is more understanding when we inevitably fail, and encourages us to do our best regardless.

Idea to steal: Saints are a great idea to remind us of qualities we should nurture in ourselves, inspiring us to get better. Calendars constantly remind us of them, assigning a date to many. We should have secular “saints” who personify good sides of people we need reminders for.

Education

What we’re taught

Few things secular society believes in as fervently as education. We have an intense faith in it, and there are grand claims implying that colleges are more than mere factories, and that they may turn us into better, wiser and happier people. However, the courses offered only prepare us for successful careers in mercantile, technological societies.

How we’re taught

Again, Christianity sees us as flawed and lost, and their purpose in education is to change our lives. Current universities are on the side of Enlightenment, assuming we’re good, and just focusing on cramming new knowledge in our heads.

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 (what Greeks called Akrasia). There’s much value in reminding us of things “we already know”, as opposed to filling in for lack of knowledge. To do that, we have to focus on excerpts, repetition, and simplification. See John Wesley references on p. 120.

Secular life is not free of calendars, but mostly they’re used for work. We feel, however, that it would be a violation of spontaneity to be presented with rotas for rereading Walt Whitman or Marcus Aurelius. We’re addicted to news and novelty, and we have sacrificed an opportunity to remind ourselves of quieter truths which we know about in theory but forget to live by in practice. We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante: the problem is the manner of absorption rather than the extent of our consumption.

Spiritual exercises

Religions have been radical in taking lesson out of the classroom, encouraging their followers to learn with their senses, through activities (eg. Zen Buddhism’s tea ceremony). We should train our minds as rigorously as our bodies, and we should train our minds through our bodies. Religious retreats, and comparison with hotels and spas from p. 145, ego and meditation notes from p. 155.

Teaching wisdom

Ultimately, the point of education is to save us time and spare us errors. Obvious and inoffensive in science, why so controversial for wisdom? No existing mainstream secular institution has a declared interest in teaching us the art of living. Religion has lots of ideas about this, and frequently those ideas were around before the birth of Jesus. Why not steal those back?

Tenderness

From a rational perspective, devotion to Mary seems infantile. But it’s the wrong framing: the cult of Mary (or Isis in Egypt, Demeter in Greece, Venus in Rome, Guan Yin in China; this is not shared cultural origin, this is universal human need!) speaks to the extent to which the needs of our childhood endure within us. Even if most of the time we can be mature, sometimes we’re hit by helplessness.

Atheism is impatient with neediness, and has attacked religion for being nothing more than a glorified response to childhood longings. This is probably correct, but we need it: many of those needs are not exclusively childish, they’re human. In Christianity, only the proud would deny their weakness.

Idea to steal: it would be useful if secular artists occasionally created works which took parental care as their central theme. They could be put in temples to tenderness.