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Book summary: Religion for atheists (III)

This is the third 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, and the second part, which discusses the first five chapters.

This is the third post of the summary, and the second discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover three chapters: Pessimism, Perspective, and Art.

Pessimism

Christianity emphasises the darker side of earthly existence. Parallel to Blaise Pascal, his exceptionally merciless pessimism, and his Pensées. We should face the desperate facts of our situation head on: “Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched”. It may come as a surprise that reading Pascal is not at all a depressing experience. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet. If his pessimism can console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope: it’s hope that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us. Hence the relief when we come across something that confirms that our very worst insights are not unique to us, but an inevitable reality of humankind.

The secular age maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on the messianic faith in the three drivers of change: science, technology, and commerce. Material improvements have been so remarkable that it’s hard to remain pessimistic, and thus hard to stay sane and content. We have many material improvements, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than before. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising happiness.

Christianity is not in and of itself an unhopeful institution, it merely has the good sense to locate its expectations firmly in the next life. The secular are at this moment much more optimistic than the religious (something of an irony, because the latter are derided by the former for their apparent naivety). The seculars’ longing for perfection is so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. In the same breath it dismisses a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind.

A pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists have a greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well. Accepting that existence is inherently frustrating can give us the impetus to say “Thank you” a little more often.

Perspective

One of the most consoling texts of the Old Testament should be the Book of Job, which has the theme of why bad things happen to good people. It’s not for us to know why events occur in the way they do, and we shouldn’t always interpret pain as punishment. Our problems aren’t the biggest, nor the most important.

Godless societies are at risk of making human beings centres of the stage, because it invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history. Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives. Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things that we will never master.

Art

Secular art exposes us to objects of genuine importance, but they seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls. We are too often looking at the right pictures through the wrong frames. Being an art “expert” is associated with knowing a great deal: where a work was made, who paid for it, where its artists’ parents came from and what his or her artistic influences may have been. A statuette like “Virgin and Child” was made for people to kneel and draw strength from Mary’s compassion and serenity. Now, in Louvre, we have to understand it. Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: a medium to remind us about what matters, to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane.

We need art because we’re so forgetful. Many of our ideas gets flattened and overlooked in everyday life, their truth rubbed off through casual use. We know intellectually that we should be forgiving and empathetic, but such adjectives have a tendency to lose all their meaning until we meet with a work of art that grabs us through our senses and won’t let us go until we have property remembered why these qualities matter and how badly society needs them for its balance and its sanity.

Another reason art is needed is that the unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister than our habit of looking at them the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, when they’re in reality very similar to us.

Suffering is important in Christianity, and it knows that pain is aggravated by a sense that we are alone in experiencing it. Jesus and Mary represent many of the sufferings people can experience. Maybe we should have contemporary artists depict a Seven Sorrows of Parenthood, a Twelve Sorrows of Adolescence or a Twenty-one Sorrows of Divorce.

In the secular world, we depend on artists to both impress our senses with their technique, and be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights. Maybe that’s too much to ask.

Maybe museums should not order galleries into movements or time, but the concerns of our souls. As they are know, they don’t achieve any real coherence at the emotional level. Museums should be more than just places for displaying beautiful objects: they should use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise.