Charles Moore reviews Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton.
‘The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of a religion,” says Alain de Bottonin the first sentence of this book, “is whether or not it is true.” Many believers will find this an unpromising start, but de Botton is not writing for them. His book is subtitled “A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion”.
One of the many, many defects of the Dawkins/Grayling school of thought is that it is so driven by rage and scorn that it refuses to attribute anything good to religion. Since even these high priests of atheism have to admit that religions often exhibit good precepts, great men and great art, they find themselves having to argue that all these good things have nothing whatever to do with religion, but have merely been accidentally conjoined to it because of the surrounding culture.
De Botton sees the absurdity of this position. Although he acknowledges “the furious institutional intolerance of many religions”, it is manifest to him that the great religions are “the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed”. They deserve to be studied: there are lessons to be learnt from them.
So he offers a series of acute observations of various aspects of religion, often encapsulated in almost aphoristic sentences. Here are some: “Religion seems to know a great deal about loneliness”; “it is a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously [as atheists often do] to being treated like a child”; “The greatest Christian preachers have been vulgar in the very best sense”; “To sustain goodness, it helps to have an audience”; “Christianity has been guided by a simple yet essential observation that has nevertheless never made any impression upon those in charge of secular education: how very easily we forget things”; “It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude”.