Hamish Hamilton, £18.99, 320pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Religion for Atheists, By Alain de Botton
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 20 January 2012
For English writers and thinkers, the urge to rescue the core values of a waning Christianity for secular culture drove literary explorations and educational ventures for over a hundred years. This aching nostalgia for an impossible faith and its masterworks has itself left some fine monuments, from Matthew Arnold in the 1860s listening to the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the ebbing "Sea of Faith" on "Dover Beach", to Philip Larkin, "Church Going" as a respectful sceptic to "A serious house on serious earth... In whose blent air all our compulsions meet".
This experience, of emotional affinity shorn of any doctrinal attachment, spanned several generations. It moulded my childhood, certainly: we didn't really go to church but we did go to churches, with the sacred volumes of Pevsner's Buildings of England lodged in the glove box of the car. And strong personalities within liberal Anglicanism (with counterparts in reform Judaism) held out a friendly hand from the side of the faithful.
For anyone with this background, the new wars of, and against, religion spearheaded by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens felt thoroughly alien. A strict dualism, with the snarling take-no-prisoners rhetoric of the atheist camp eagerly answered by the renewed polemics of the party of God, replaced the familiar fuzz of sympathetic doubt.
This long history gives a powerful springboard for Alain de Botton's latest leap into the dark. The popular philosopher seeks to enlist the social and emotional virtues of organised religion for unbelief, and to suggest ways in which the "useful, interesting and consoling" aspects of faith might take on new shapes in secular institutions. Of course, for any believer sure that "religions are not a buffet", this pick-and-mix approach to ritual and tradition may outrage. The critic Terry Eagleton, steeped equally in Catholicism and Marxism, has voiced his disgust.
I suspect that De Botton's tone grates even more than his content. His urbane, rather Voltairean scrutiny examines how the practice of faith – with most examples from Christianity, several from Judaism and a few from Buddhism – has helped weak-willed humans cope with "the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet". Indeed, this book can sound too cool for its own good. The genially erudite ironies that have served its author so well with topics from travel to architecture can feel a bit too glib here.
When he puts the worldwide conventions of Catholic confession on a par with buying a burger at McDonalds (both "ensure a regularity of service across a vast and scattered labour force"), the Hitchens-esque sarcasm risks undermining De Botton's wider purposes. He does better when he drops the superior suavity, as when a section on the cult of Mary begins with the Graham Greene-ish scene of a stricken middle-aged man laying at the Blessed Virgin's feet all those crippling feelings of "remorse, foreboding and loneliness" that would be utterly unwelcome in the office or at home.
Halfway between earnest and jest, De Botton suggests faith-free venues and customs to replicate the practical wisdom of churches, temples and synagogues. At "Agape Restaurants", strangers could meet to bare their souls, not trade boasts; value-based rather than technocratic universties would host a Department of Relationships and Centre for Self-Knowledge; museums might be arranged not according to art-historical categories but with galleries devoted to Compassion, Fear and Love; Temples of Perspective would soar to the stars to remind us of our littleness and supply "souvenirs of the transcendent".
These thought-experiments have their grounding in solid psychological truths. De Botton grasps that religion, unlike post-Enlightenment rationalism, sees that "the needs of childhood endure within us", and sets out to satisfy them. Great Christian art, with a crucified outcast in agony at its heart, "gives shape to pain". Religious liturgies and practices accept our weakness and dependence; at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, "it is clear that the whole race is forlorn". "We are most of us lambs," De Botton writes, "in need of good shepherds and a merciful flock". Atheism, on the contrary, seems "coldly impatient of our neediness". Through services and sacraments, from a Zen tea-ceremony to a High Mass, religions may give to value a communal expression and so ease the pressure on frail single minds. De Botton doesn't quote what that post-Christian mystic WB Yeats says in "A Prayer for my Daughter", but he might well have done: "How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born".
Packed with tantalising goads to thought and playful prompts to action, Religion for Atheists nonetheless suffers from the thinness of its historical topsoil. It sounds as if addressed to some nightmarish ideal reader of a commitment-free yuppie who seeks to fill his howling inner void. Yet many irreligious people will have been brought up within or close to institutions designed to serve just the needs this book highlights. It has little to say about schools (as opposed to universities), libraries, sports clubs, charities, campaigns, political parties – all that rich mulch of civil society that, in Britain, spread as the churches emptied, and took over many of their roles. Any NHS hospital will be thronged day and – often - night with people, staff and volunteers, who seek and find there a collective support for private emotions and devotions: a cure of souls as well as of bodies.
De Botton rightly argues that "the wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind". He engagingly proposes new kinds of behaviour that could repopulate our public spaces with non-commercial reminders of meaning and principle. Yet a certain aloofness and abstraction both lowers the temperature, and may limit the appeal, of Religion for Atheists. After all, over the 150 years since Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill and George Eliot, value-driven secularism has grown a noble tradition of its own. De Botton, whether he acknowledges it or not, has enriched its scriptures with this stimulating tract.
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