Review of  Alain De Botton (2012) Religion for Atheists. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Ian Hughes, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
Alain De Botton 'Religion for Atheists'

Alain De Botton 'Religion for Atheists'

I have heard interviews on radio and watched interviews on television. I’ve also read reviews in newspapers, and now wonder if Quakerism might be the religion for atheists that De Botton is looking for.

Reading the book, I was left with an impression that De Botton is nostalgic for a bygone age when religion held communities together, enabling whole villages and towns to lead ethical and transcendent lives. It is an easy book to read, with gems of insight and even wisdom.

De Botton claims that, in the West, ‘we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive domain areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind’ (p. 15). He thinks religions have combined theories about ethics and metaphysics with a practical involvement in education, health and other everyday concerns in ways which no secular institution has managed. He proposes a new secular religion of wisdom without doctrine, with secular temples which aim to raise the human spirit, with secular schools and universities which teach morality, not just facts and theories. In short, he proposes a religion without God.

I kept wishing that De Botton had dome some research into existing religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Indigenous Australian Religions. I would like him to read Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World and Towards the True Kinship of Faiths, both by the Dalai Lama. He might inquire how Hinduism has many Gods, which some scholars understand as projections of human minds rather than independently existing supernatural beings. De Botton limits his discussion to the Abrahamic Religions, and even here he seems unaware of the acceptance of non-theists in some Jewish and Christian congregations.

Alain De Botton is an atheist brought up by non-observant parents from a Jewish family with a long and proud heritage. He was educated in Anglican boarding schools and at Cambridge University. De Botton writes that ‘for some atheists, one of the most difficult aspects of renouncing religion is having to give up on ecclesiastical art and all the beauty and emotion therein’ (p208). I speculate whether De Botton is worried that a public commitment to atheism means forgoing his Jewish heritage.

This leads me to wonder: ‘Should I tell De Botton about Quakers?’

For more than 300 years many Quakers have not believed in the God described by mainstream Catholics and Protestants. Non-theism is openly discussed and accepted by liberal unprogrammed Meetings in the United States, Britain and Australia. We have the wisdom without doctrine that De Botton seeks, and we bring ethics and transcendence to unity.

But we don’t have some of the other things which De Botton looks for, the sacramental genius of the Mass, the splendour of religious art, the inspiring cathedrals and uplifting music or the Jewish family rituals. Perhaps he would be disappointed by the quiet simplicity of Quaker Worship.

Quakerism may not provide what De Botton is seeking, but my personal hope is that we are and continue to be a religion for atheists.


Click here [ ] for video of Alain de Botton talking about this book. For different opinions about this book visit The Guardian, Huffington Post or New Statesman

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