“Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Botton (Book Review)

There are plenty of books out there for those who despise all aspects of religion and would rather it be completely wiped off the face of the Earth. And unfortunately, even this certain group of people don’t represent the views of all within the secular community, their voices are often the ones most heard. But for those who aren’t anti-theists or apart of of the New Atheist Movement, Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion” is something you might be interested in adding to your library.

In his book, de Botton examines three religious systems (Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) and makes a case for what we can learn from them and why/how we should implement some aspects of them into our own lives. The author’s use of pictures in particular helps not only to get his message across, but will continually keep the reader engaged and wanting to read more.

One aspect of religion that de Botton seems to really hone in on is the role of architecture (inspired by pre-established religious monuments) and how it can unite us together as one people. For example, he mentions the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Those who have been to the wailing wall know that it serves as a place for Jewish people to pray and lament over the destruction of their temple. In addition to this, visitors write their prayers on a slip of paper and place it inside of the crevices of the wall. By creating a space where we can come together and share our joys and concerns, we become more connected to each other on a personal level.

Though Botton’s ideas would be great to implement into religious secular communities, I think he fails to recognize that believers have something that can sometimes make their actions, practices, and willingless to learn from authority more meaningful. That thing is called “motivation”.

For example, chapter two of the book focuses on creating community and setting aside a sacred space in order to fulfill the participants goals. But why would anyone want to go into this space if they feel like they have no reason to? For some believers, going to their local place of worship helps them to connect with God or a thing they believe is greater than themselves. For others, it’s fueled by the fear of eternal punishment or being trapped in an eternal cycle of reincarnation. A Muslim might not even feel motivated to go to the mosque, but still goes either a) out of their love for Allah or b) because they want to score “brownie points” for the Day of Judgement. The same way a Hindu might not even feel like doing their daily pooja, but does it anyways to ward off any suffering that might come towards them and their loved ones. If we want to create a community (which honestly, there already are some) that encourages people to connect with each other on a regular basis, we have to give them a motivation or reason to do so. But then again, every community started out with people who were committed to the cause and looked out for the needs of others (without selfish desires and need for benefit).

Another thing I noticed is that the majority of ideas he proposed (from the music, to the setup of the spaces, to the art, and to sometimes the topics) were oriented towards older (mostly likely educated) white middle class people. For example, De Botton states in the “Kindness” section of his book that, “An absence of religious belief in no way invalidates a continuing need for ‘patron saints’of qualities like Courage, Friendship, Fidelity, Patience, Confidence, or Sceptism”. As a woman of color who has been in secular spaces, I would also add onto this that the saints would need to be representative of the country’s racial and gender demographics (seeing as representation creates a feeling of belonging and welcome). So in this case, it’s okay to have great men such as Socrates, Einstein, and Mr. Rodgers be canonized as saints. But if we want to build a secular community that is welcoming and seeks to empower all, it’s also important that we include among them people like George Washington Carver, Caesar Chavez, and Princess Diana.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for people who are apart of the secular community and looking to implement religious practices into their life. I would also recommend this book to those who consider themselves skeptics, freethinkers, humanists, atheists, and agnostic, and are apart of religious bodies (such as Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Humanism, Humanistic Judaism, Secular Buddhism, etc.). Let this book inspire you, and those around you, to take on the good aspects of religion, while staying true to your way of thought and persuasion.

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