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Book summary: Religion for atheists (IV)

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.

Architecture

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.

Institutions

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

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”.

Conclusion

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.