three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
user_rating: 
0

737387.pngFreelance writer, television personality, and public intellectual Alain de Botton broke onto the scene in the early 1990s with the runaway bestselling novel Essays in Love. Since then, with nonfiction titles that include Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009), The Architecture of Happiness ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007), and A Week at the Airport, and a role as a founding member of London’s School of Life, de Botton has become perhaps the world’s most recognizable popular philosopher. In Religion for Atheists, the author calls for secular attention to religion’s rituals.

The Topic: "While universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, they remain wholly uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom," Alain de Botton writes. In chapters titled "Community," "Kindness," "Education," "Religions," and Perspective," among others, de Botton calls for a reorganization of our public institutions and articulates his "philosophy of everyday life," advocating a secular use of religious rituals as a path to wisdom. For instance, museum exhibitions could more accurately reflect how we live by opening galleries of suffering, compassion, fear, love, and self-knowledge; colleges and universities could establish Departments of Relationships. One thing religion has done well over the centuries is to change societies, de Botton observes, a lesson atheists can apply to their lives even today.
Pantheon. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307379108

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Those who read this book blithely accepting either the mysteries of religion or the supposed rationality of secularism are going to find the rug constantly pulled from under them. In the end, this makes Religion for Atheists a wonderfully dangerous and subversive book." Geoff Nicholson

Seattle Times4 of 5 Stars
"Much of the book is common-sensical and insightful. … The wealth of knowledge and felicity of phrasing that de Botton brings to his task make for a stimulating read." Michael Upchurch

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In de Botton’s take, he happily and brazenly picks a little of this and a little of that from his personal religious buffet—a tactic he likens to the literature-lover focusing only on a select group of writers—to reveal how religion might fill gaps in what he calls nonbeliever’s impoverished lives. … One has to appreciate his pluck as much as his lucid, enjoyable arguments, and this book, like his previous titles, is a serious but intellectually wild ride." Christine Thomas

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"In what is sure to be his most controversial book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton turns his attention to aspects of religion he considers worth saving. … Readers on both ends of the religious spectrum are liable to be kept awake fulminating at Religion for Atheists, though furious engagement with his ideas may well be de Botton’s intention." Heller McAlpin

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The writer occasionally mentions Buddhism, glances off a reference or two to Hinduism and mentions Islam not at all. … You don’t have to be a believer to find de Botton’s eloquent cutting-and-pasting nowhere near as nourishing as the infuriating and sublime poetry Religion for Atheists seeks to tame." John Repp

Entertainment Weekly 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Rather than trashing believers and beliefs, Alain de Botton cherry-picks what he finds cool about various religions, then explains how they could be modified for secular purposes in Religion for Atheists. The result is a slightly precious, upper-middle-brow tract with ideas both reasonable and ridiculous: Restaurants could promote community, billboards could advertise values, society as a whole could establish medieval-style Feast of Fools days during which everybody could ‘party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers.’" Jeff Giles

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"De Botton’s book is provocative when it comes to diagnosing the current cultural ills. But it makes atheism seem kind of boring, a spiritual handicap, the opiate of the shallow masses." David Brooks

Critical Summary

When discussing the controversial—or, at the least, the provocative—ideas in Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, critics tend to invoke C. S. Lewis and Augustine, writers who reconcile matters of faith with the concerns of the secular world, rather than Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith), two prominent critics of organized religion. Some of De Botton’s ideas tend to come out of left field, and he revels in subverting readers’ notions of what this book should be about. Inarguably, de Botton is a sophisticated observer whose worldly perspective sometimes reads more like an extended thought experiment than a manifesto. Is he just putting us on? Maybe. At its best, though, Religion for Atheists encourages dialogue on one of society’s most divisive issues. Whether de Botton succeeds in raising consciousness or just opening the chasm further is a matter for debate.