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Why we need God
Alain de Botton is usually described as a philosopher, apart from also being a TV presenter, architect, educator and entrepreneur. In an age where serious philosophy has become passê and just musing or thinking aloud abstractions is called philosophizing, he comfortably qualifies as a philosopher.
In previous books Alain de Botton has deftly combined common sense with a medley of ideas taken from various philosophers or thinkers of the past and presented enticing confections on an array of themes - love, work, anxiety about what others think of us, what philosophers like Epicurus, Socrates, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others have to say about modern individual sufferings, and even a popular account of Marcel Proust, the French writer who is considered a master but opaque to the commoner.
In all this, de Botton has a purpose. He wants readers, or followers, to stop worrying and be happy in the more spiritual or intellectual sense. That's his philosophy. In Religion for Atheists Alain de Botton picks up on a theme that has a long history - the usefulness of religions, without its ideological baggage, without dogmas, shorn of supernatural purpose. He himself devotes several pages at the end of this book to one of the great proponents of this idea, Auguste Comte, the "visionary, eccentric and only intermittently sane French sociologist of nineteenth century". Comte of course proposed an alternative religion without a God, and ended up deranged.
The pedigree of this idea goes back to Machiavelli and Voltaire, Mathew Arnold and Edward Gibbon, and even Graham Greene. Alain de Botton is upfront in saying right at the beginning that he is an atheist. "Of course, no religions are true in a god-given sense, " he says on the first page. In fact, he says that it is "boring and unproductive" to ask or discuss the question whether religions are true or not.
So then, what's the book about? Alain de Botton argues that there are many aspects of religion that are full of goodness, that satisfy deeply felt cravings which are in danger of being lost to the thinking humans averse to dogma and the overweening presence of god. These components of religions need to be saved, cherished and developed for the spiritual uplift of humanity.
The sense of community, the virtues of kindness and tenderness, the appreciation of art and architecture, the benefits of education and institutions, even such reviled emotions as pessimism - all these can be stolen from various religions and developed independently. For instance, take pessimism. The modern world lays great store on irrational optimism. But this leads to almost constant disappointment, according to de Botton. If we were to borrow the austere pessimism of religions, we would not expect too much from life, and hence our joy at small things - a smile, an act of kindness, a word of praise - would be far more edifying and satisfying. And so on. Needless to say that Religion for Atheists argues forcefully for morality to be rescued from the clutches of religious dogmas and punitive gods. Also, rituals (like the Christian mass) because they foster a sense of community.
Alain de Botton has used only Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism as examples of religions from which good things can be taken perhaps because of his familiarity with them. But he says that his thesis applies to all religions. Almost a third of the book is black-and-white plates of appropriate pictures - cathedrals, a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, Paradise by Brueghel the Younger, the Buddha at Hainan.
Alain de Botton is supremely innocent of any contradictions that pop up the moment you start seriously thinking about these propositions: Why do we need to be kind? Why do we need to be satisfied with paradise? Why does the heart soar on seeing the cathedral spire? This is not surprising because he lives in a well-fed, well-appointed world where pain and suffering are academic. In this make-believe world, selective amnesia is the business end of things, history is a fairy tale and philosophy is asking why I like Madonna and Child.
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