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on 20 December 2013
This is a really engaging, funny and intelligent book. A manifesto for non supernatural religion.
De Boton is an atheist (like me) who has written a book in praise of religion, or rather the very powerful and important things that religion does well. He left me realising that as an atheist I have a void in my life which should be filled, if only I could get over the supernatural stuff which I cannot believe.
More importantly, he points out that secular societies as a whole have many voids which have been left by the retreat from religion.

But he goes further: he sets out how these voids could be filled if there was a will to do so, using the art, architecture and intellectual and creative capital of our societies. It would involve us not backing away from the big questions in life, or understanding that we all face dilemmas and fears, but harnessing secular ideas to tackle them. Could museums and galleries become places themed around the big issues in life rather than the period of origination? Could luxury hotels be spiritual as well as physical retreats? Could restaurants be places where people are encouraged to meet and welcome strangers? Could we harness nature and great art to give us all a sense of perspective and peace?

I had a lovely moment this morning while walking the dogs where I was confronted by a beautiful natural scene, and realised this book had made me determined to be more aware of quasi-religious moments.

The author concludes accurately: if only we could find another word, instead of the heavily loaded 'religion', many more of us could embrace these ideas.
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on 29 March 2013
The basic tenet is that the expressions of religious beliefs have a lot ideas the secular world can usefully take up in terms of their structures and rituals, art and architecture, and sense of 'community'..

There are many assumptions about human responses - for example, I am not sure that knowing the incredible distance of the nearest galaxy will make the depressed amongst us standing on a railway bridge feel less suicidal? Thinking of the effect on the train driver might just do that. And for some people watching a 'flickering screen' e.g. a scarey but not too scarey film can help them to sleep - not keep them awake as de Botton contends. Reading Montesquieu savouring every sentence does not always work (eg The Cannibals chapter ). There is mention by de Botton of tragedies in "every " life - but some people suffer a great deal more than others and cannot, as he ruminates, think back to being comforted by a parent if they never were.

Ideas are scattered along the way of this book and to be useful all need to be developed much further - such as that "hope" causes grief - this is a very interesting idea though it is the death of hope which does that. And that beauty can help us to feel better: this is a good notion however there is a massive assumption that it makes us better people: (you may be more likely to get an act of kindness/neighbourliness in the ugly back streets of a poor city than in a picturesque commuter village but making one corner of your room cheery can be life enhancing) . Love seems to conflated with instinct e.g. the love of your own infant is very different from the decision to continue to love a person in your life who is being very difficult, or to befriend an isolated stranger.

There is maybe a touch of romance about religion especially references to the Catholic church - the structures can help but like all institutions there are those who 'belong' more than others (e.g. arguably, democratisation favours the bold - the fight for gender equality will seldom change social class structures which are becoming more rigid) The comments about the need for people to have more realistic views of marriage - child raising not happiness- is another idea cast on the waters. But whilst happiness may not be a valid objective a happier parent may be better able to manage the child raising.

In summary I found this to be book of personal, roughed-out ideas and themes on creating happiness and community with less about the how and who decides what is "good" The large number of photo. reproductions are not so good. The effects of religion on creating community a touch historical and maybe overestimated ('outsiders' remain outsiders for most churches) and the notion of having "psychoanalytically trained travel agents" to suss out our needs may be an intrusion too far with potentially startling consequences (and lots of divorces?)..But this would be a brilliant starter for a discussion on the many topics covered - a good work for a secular non fiction book /philosophy group - or church meeting - and an engaging read for the rest of us.
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on 21 February 2012
This really is a wonderful, engaging book that was an absolute joy to read. I had a religious upbringing but have been an atheist since my teens. I've always felt ambivalent towards Christianity, because there's so much about it I can never accept, and yet I've seen firsthand the sense of community it provides, the consolation it brings in times of trouble, and the acts of kindness that faith can inspire. Like many people, I can't relate to Dawkins' harsh dismissal of everything spiritual, despite agreeing with him about the non-existence of God, so Alain de Botton's book was a revelation as to how atheists can benefit from the wisdom of religions while rejecting their intolerances and superstitions.

The book aims throughout to demonstrate how the best aspects of religion might be transferred into a secular community. For example, the author proposes the concept of the Agape restaurant, the secular equivalent of a church feast, where one can eat with and talk to strangers, be accepted with kindness, and discuss the things that really matter in life, all within a structured framework. It appealed to me as an alternative to the alienating experience of trying to make friends at a party, where every question is loaded with judgement, `what do you do', and so on. I also loved his idea of reintroducing a Feast of Fools, based on a historical festival from mediaeval Christianity that provided an outlet to release tension by indulging in unrestricted drunken or sexual behaviour and letting go of adult responsibilities just for one day.

I was fascinated by de Botton's ideas on the importance of teaching ethics and relevant life skills via literature, art and philosophy (the secular alternatives to religious doctrines). In universities literary texts are so often presented for dissection in such a clinical, detached manner, as if connecting them with our lives and drawing practical value from them would be somehow embarrassing or un-academic - and yet there are centuries of life experience and acquired wisdom to be drawn from them.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the hidden benefits of pessimism, and I agree with the author that a capitalist-oriented emphasis on optimism, choice and the power of the individual to `achieve anything you want,' can be terribly damaging, because of its implication that failure is then the fault of the individual, and not attributable to environmental factors or sheer bad luck. One of the gifts of religion is to help us accept our flaws and the limitations imposed on us with grace and humour, instead of succumbing to self-loathing and despair because we don't match up to impossible expectations. De Botton proposes that we share some of our darkest emotions via an anonymous `Wailing Wall', giving consolation to others by helping them understand they are not alone in their loneliness, anxiety, social inadequacy, etc.

The book also covers the subject of the beauty and meaning inherent in religious art and architecture, and how this sense of awe could be transferable to buildings and museums in the secular world - the controversial idea of `atheist temples.' Last weekend, with this in mind I visited Westminster Abbey, which I haven't been to since my childhood. I was left stunned by the immense beauty and brilliance of the architecture, and the love and devotion that must have inspired it, but it also struck me how differently people behaved inside the building; the hushed voices, and the lack of shoving, pushing and tutting that you experience in any crowded space in central London. I doubt that all of the tourists were believers, but we were all spellbound by the atmosphere. I believe this sense of reflectiveness and sanctuary could be consciously replicated in a secular temple dedicated to perspective, love or friendship, as the author proposes.

I think this is a fascinating and very brave book that will no doubt attract criticism from both sides, and I admire Alain de Botton's courage in stepping into the midst of the debate. I would recommend it to anyone who can't accept outdated superstition, yet seeks an alternative to existing purely to gain material wealth and status in a selfish, individualistic society.
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on 22 July 2013
Excellent lateral thinking from a great writer and philosopher who makes a great case for retaining some of religion's best features to help us cope with - and possibly change - modern society even if we don't believe in the supernatural.
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on 27 July 2015
This book left me feeling very cross. It's well written - AdB is a very good writer, capable of making his ideas clear, and his analysis and prescriptions sound like common sense. He starts off by saying that he doesn't believe that the stories religion tells about the world are true, so he has many atheists on side. The rest of the book is pointing out the social value of religious institutions (including social practices as well as organisations and buildings as institutions). It's persuasive a lot of the time; indeed, some of the arguments that it makes are what led others to create, and me to join, the Sunday Assembly, which is a sort of church (or in my case synagogue) for atheists.

Taken as one side of an argument the book can't really be faulted. Secular societies do miss out on some of the communal and communitarian aspects of religion, though I think he's a little unfair in ignoring the various ways that secular societies and organisations do provide this. I’m familiar with the way that the Communist Party, and the broader labour movement, served many people as both cause and community, but he seems not to be. Similarly, science has managed to build exactly the kinds of institutions that he says religion has, and to which the secular world should aspire.

As a balanced account this book is not very good at all. Most of the opposition to and anger towards religion doesn’t come from the fact that it is based on a false set of beliefs and stories. Not many people have ever been really angry about alchemy or Lamarckianism. What makes religion so horrible so much of the time is the flip side of exactly the social aspects of organised religion on which this book concentrates. AdB likes the fact that religion tells us how to live; does he like the fact that it has spent an enormous amount of time and energy prescribing some kinds of sexual act and prohibiting others, and that it has brutally persecuted people who didn’t see it the same way? That it proscribed non-marital sexual relations between men and women, but applied most of the punishment to women?

Then there’s the telling people what to think, and the cruel, brutal punishment of those who didn’t think the same way. Of course the church (and not just the Catholic Church) executed atheists and humanists like Giordano Bruno, but it also executed and tortured heretics – believers who thought a little differently about something that the church considered an important matter of doctrine. It also retrospectively determined that some beliefs and doctrines were heretical, and punished heretics posthumously – like the dead theologians who were dug up and burned. These days religious apologists tend to say that organised religion doesn’t make claims to factual knowledge about the world, but that is a position to which it has been pushed by the advance of science. It would be ridiculous to torture someone for believing in the heliocentric model of the solar system, but it didn’t seem so funny in the sixteenth century.

And let’s not forget the preaching of acquiescence to the social order. “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate” about sums it up. Elsewhere, AdB has argued that much of the unhappiness in the modern world comes from the fact that people aren’t more accepting of their allotted place in the world. The focus of his criticism is what might be called ambition or aspiration, but the urge to social justice would also fall under this category of things that make us miserable. There is a well-developed argument stretching from Hobbes to Roger Scruton that says religion might not be true, but it’s needed to keep the lower orders from abandoning morality (and respect for authority, often assumed to be the same thing).

Sure, there were plenty of religiously inspired radicals like Martin Luther King, but these people are mainly exceptions. It’s not religious doctrine or beliefs that puts religion on the side of the oppressor and against the oppressed, because we can see that the same beliefs can justify the opposite stance. It’s the social reality of religious institutions in the world.

Part of that reality is submission to authority. I’m sure there’s a positive side to this too, but the negative side is that authority is abused. The most recent cases of child abuse within the Catholic church are well known, but there seems little reason to doubt that it’s been going on for a long time, that many cases were covered up and many abusers able to escape any sort of justice.

So one and a half cheers for this book, which does makes some good points (for example, about the role of news and the expectation that technology will make the world a better place), but in the overall context of a stew of bad and one-sided argumentation.
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on 5 July 2012
I really like Alain de Botton and his accessible, absorbing approach to philosophy. But I really didn't enjoy this book, I'm afraid.

The structure of each chapter the book is very formulaic:
a) Identify a positive aspect of religion
b) Muse that this is lacking in modern society
c) Propose a secular solution

The majority of his arguments collapse at stage b. For example:
a) Churches get strangers talking to one another
b) Restaurants don't
c) Set up new restaurants

The problem, of course, is that the assignment of this quality to restaurants is arbitrary. There are plenty of secular places and events, from knitting circles to Skeptics in the Pub, where strangers are encouraged to talk and interact. I simply don't accept the premise that this is a function of religious society that is absent from secular society.

Similarly:
a) The church guides us on practical life skills
b) Universities teach fact-based courses like history, with little regard for life skills
c) Change universities' curricula

I studied at a university with an Institute for Health and Society and a Campus for Ageing and Vitality: I don't accept the premise that universities only offer impractical courses.

And so it goes on. Almost every chapter is built upon one of these illogical leaps - and, not only that, but the structure of the book gives little expression to the downsides of the prescribed form of living encouraged by religion, and its secular reversioning encouraged by de Botton.

Overall, this was a disappointing and frustrating read from one of my favourite authors. I sorely hope he returns to form!
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Alain de Botton is often prone to (as we say) "'avin' a laugh", but he is careful to do it when you least expect. Given that many people take religion and atheism very seriously indeed his style of counter-argument is bound to ruffle some feathers amongst both groups. His concept; that one can thieve the best bits from religion and recreate them in a secular environment seemed to be light-hearted to me but I think I am in the minority. I found the book very interesting though his examples of religions are ones that dwell on practice and process perhaps more than the Protestant liberal Christianity of Britain and America. Given that religious people seem from research (much quoted in The Economist) to be happier and more contented than the secular there may well be elements that we can recreate, but I doubt de Botton is actually advocating this to any great degree. The book is an excellent opportunity to see the mundane once again through new eyes.
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on 26 January 2012
I don't usually write reviews but felt compelled to now as I absolutely loved this book. It's erudite, witty, imaginative and packed with great ideas. I'm an atheist who has often been drawn to aspects of religion, but couldn't really articulate why. In clear, illuminating prose, this wonderful book has explained what the attractions of religion might be for the likes of me and also given me loads of food for thought. It's also a very human book and ultimately very consoling.
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on 7 March 2013
We atheists often live in a sterile world and those who were religious realise that the church (religion) had something going for it but it got lost when we threw out all the superstition. A baby and bathwater situation. de Botton resuscitates those attributes of religions which he feels are lacking in today's life and explores their uses and mechanisms of action.
He looks at Buddhism and Christians and Jews but not Muslim and Hindu or any others.
It is a good and interesting thesis but will be improved upon by others and include other belief systems. So far (75%) he has not constructed an Atheist set of rituals and ceremonies.
Easily read, not too long and not too detailed.
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on 20 September 2013
I was brought up a Catholic (but I'm all right now!) and although I am very content to be non-religious and for schools to be the same, I have wondered over the years, 'How can we fill that gap? How can children and society in general be urged to be moral and law-abiding without the influence of the daily prayers, readings and sermons etc. which all encourage decent, self-less behaviour. Alain de Botton has made a useful analysis of the problem and makes some sensible suggestions although I feel he jumps to conclusions too readily in some instances. Still a good read though and a sound basis for some worth-while discussion.
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