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Religion for atheists: Building community

Woendsdregt writes about a book written by Alain de Bottom, a philosopher who argues that religion has value, even for atheists.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

I’ve written about this before, but it seemed a good time to reflect on this again. A few years ago, I read a fascinating book called “Religion for Atheists: a Non–Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.” It was written by French philosopher Alain de Botton, who wrote this book because he believes that while religions may not be true, they still have an enduring value in our world.

In his book, he begins by noting that many have tried to prove the non–existence of God. “Tough–minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough–going simpletons or maniacs.”

On his website, de Botton claims that this debate has become boring. He is a committed atheist, but goes on to assert that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world. “The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling.”

The idea intrigued me. Perhaps here was a way in which we could build some common ground for a fruitful conversation about differing worldviews and the choices we make on the basis of our worldview.

Some of the pre–publication advertising indicated that de Botton considered such things as art and music and architecture to be among the lasting legacy of religions to the world. There can’t be much debate about that. Religions of all kinds have enriched the world with beautiful creations in the arts. Western literature is filled with references to the Bible and the traditions of the Christian faith. Musical masterpieces based on the texts of Christian faith abound. One can’t go to an art museum without seeing works of art depicting Biblical scenes.

Given this advance publicity, it came to me as quite a shock that the first thing de Botton mentions as a useful and interesting legacy of religion is the sense of community. “One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community.”

That’s quite an ironic statement, given the amount of interest that’s being paid to staying connected, whether it be via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any of the other social networking sites. But as William Powers argues in his book “Hamlet’s Blackberry”, our technological connectivity is very shallow. We may be connected far and wide, but we have no real sense of community despite that connectedness.

De Botton similarly argues that religion helps to foster a deeper sense of community. He uses worship as an analogy, particularly the Roman Catholic mass. “It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their parameters there will reign values utterly unlike those which hold sway in the world beyond, in the offices, gyms and living rooms of the city.”

Within those walls gathers a community of people who seek to know and be known. More important, the community that gathers is diverse. “Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values.”

A community like that breaks down social barriers in a way that no other kind of community does. We usually tend to gather only with those who are the same as us. But the kind of community fostered by religion is more diverse. The church has managed “to persuade monarchs and magnates to kneel down and abase themselves before the statue of a carpenter and to wash the feet of peasants, street sweepers and dispatch drivers.”

We don’t do this in secular society, he argues, and we are the poorer for it. Secular people can learn from this practice; indeed we all need to learn from this, for our lives have become insular and unconnected. We have largely lost any deep sense of community, which has always been an important and enriching part of human life.

In the rest of the book, he does the same kind of creative thinking around such subjects as Education, Kindness, Tenderness and Pessimism, as well as Art and Architecture. I commend the book to all who would be interested in a more nuanced discussion of the relationship between religion and atheism.