Posts Tagged “religion”
Apr 23, 2019
This is the fourth (and last) 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, the second part, which discusses the first five chapters, and the third part, which discusses the next three.
This is the fourth post of the summary, and the third discussing the book chapter by chapter. This post will cover the last two chapters: Architecture and Institutions.
Catholicism makes a half touching, half alarming point about the importance of architecture: we are very sensitive to what is around us, so we need to have good architecture in order to grow into, and remain, good people. Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus argued that beauty alludes to, and can remind us about, virtues like love, trust, intelligence, kindness, and justice. Far from being merely unfortunate, ugliness is recategorised as a subset of evil.
In the absence of gods, we still retain ethical beliefs which are in need of being solidified and celebrated, using temples. These wouldn’t have to look all similar (as religious building do), but they could be left up to their individual architects and patrons. Some ideas for secular temples:
- Temple to Perspective: similar to a science museum, possibly with items of palaeontological and geological interest in the walls, and astronomical instruments in the ceilings and roof. However, it wouldn’t pretend to try to give a scientific education. The science would be roughly handled and presented in the interests of stirring awe rather than in the name of promoting knowledge: science for its therapeutic perspective-giving capacity, rather than its factual value.
- Temple to Reflection: in the modern age, our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. This temple would be a simple space, a bench or two, and a vista.
- Temple for the Genius Loci: the Imperial Roman religion not only provided for the worship of cosmopolitan gods like Juno and Mars, but also local deities whose personalities reflected the characters of their native regions. These gods (genii locorum) were given temples of their own and developed reputations and sometimes drew travelers from afar. Like so much else that seems sensible about Roman religion, the tradition was absorbed by Christianity (in the form of saints). Travelling is at the heart of many secular ideas of fulfilment, and there are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness, retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us. Travelling could be existential healing, and not merely entertainment or relaxation.
While the secular world uses mostly books to promote ideas, religion employs institutions. Institutions have a much wider-ranging influence than books (Plato argues this then talking about the limits of lone intellectuals in his Republic). Many secular intellectuals suspect institutions for their tolerance to mediocrity. The ideal of the intellectual is a free spirit, disdainful of money, cut off from practical affairs. However, institutions aggregate money, intelligence, and status. They also coalesce the efforts of its members through a shared visual vocabulary. Brands promote consistency, and their enemy is local variation.
A regrettable feature of the modern world is that while some of our most trivial requirements are met by superlatively managed brands, our essential needs are left in the disorganised and unpredictable care of lone actors. And because we’re embodied creatures (sensory as well as rational), we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels: what we read and see, but also what we wear, eat, sing, and decorate our houses with.
Religions bring scale, consistency, and outer-directed force to what might otherwise always remain small, random, private moments. Romanticism falsely thinks that it’s better to leave those moment unregulated, for fear of hampering our authenticity. On the contrary, we need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be to distracted and undisciplined to make time for.
Auguste Comte’s (failed) attempt at making a “secular religion”. He presented his Religion of Humanity in two books: Summary Exposition of the Universal Religion and Theory of the Future of Man. He thought that capitalism had aggravated people’s competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them for their communities, traditions, and their sympathies with nature. “Know yourself to improve yourself”.
One of the problems is that, while we’re well disposed to embrace new technology, we like to stick with what we know in social practices like education, relationships, leisure time, ceremonies, and manners. However, many of these solutions have existed for a long time, they have just been ignored by secular minds repelled by religious doctrines.
Many of the problems of the modern soul can be successfully addressed by solutions put forward by religions once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure in which they were conceived. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all humankind, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
And that’s it! Phew, that was a lot of text. I hope you enjoyed it.
Apr 23, 2019
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.
Edit: see the fourth and last post of the summary on this blog.
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.
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.
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.
Apr 23, 2019
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.
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:
- The Agape restaurant (too long to summarise here, see p. 43-50), inspired by early Masses, in which people shared a meal.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Apr 23, 2019
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 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.