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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute joy to read
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...
Published on 21 Feb 2012 by CN

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91 of 106 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Far below par for Alain de Botton
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...
Published 21 months ago by Dr. Simon Howard


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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute joy to read, 21 Feb 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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does what it says on the tin, 22 July 2013
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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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91 of 106 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Far below par for Alain de Botton, 5 July 2012
By 
Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dislodging good qualities from religion?, 28 Dec 2013
Not being an atheist, in spite of recurring doubt, I looked forward to reading de Botton's ideas as I'd heard that he was less dogmatic and evangelically inclined than Richard Dawkins and a good defence of atheism is a difficult thing to pull off.

However, de Botton doesn't attempt this at all - rather he argues, with due homage to Comte - that atheists could learn a thing or two by secularising some of the key apprehensions of religion. In fact he begins in a very Dorkinesque way, describing `the idiocy of believers' and saying the real question (i.e. setting his own terms for the book that follows) is "where to take the argument once one decides that he (God) evidently doesn't (exist)." This is fair enough - atheists, for whom this book is written, have, by definition, decided that God doesn't exist. (This, it seems, is in contrast to many Theists who often hedge their bets) So if I was looking for a defence of atheism I wasn't going to find it here.

What I did find was a series of chapters saying that religions had, in fact, come up with some quite good perceptions about community, sharing, training the mind, offering comfort, creating `sacred' spaces, building self-sustaining institutions of great longevity etc. Along the way he suggests that to satisfy our need to connect with transcendence there should be public television screens showing images of deep space, thus revealing our true `nothingness'. (I think he goes a little off course here).

He concludes by saying - with no apparent sense of how he has definitively mastered the art of being sublimely, unconsciously, patronising - that there is much to be learned from religions. The trick is to dislodge these insights from the `supernatural structure within which they were first conceived'. Unfortunately, this is where the book ends, acknowledging that it can `only sketch some intellectual as well as practical ambitions.'

I was looking forward to how this secular institution, encouraging a lack of self-regard, a relegation of the ego, a deep compassion, firm morality and inspirational insights without dogmatic control, was going to be established. Perhaps that will be set out in his next book? In the meantime I shall continue to explore the slightly more probable attitude that the significant package of qualities promoted by most faiths may just as reasonably be thought to have their basis in the fundamental ground of being itself. Dislodging them may either not be possible or have unforeseen consequences.
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106 of 126 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it, 26 Jan 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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101 of 121 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unconvincing. Unnecessary., 21 Feb 2012
When I first took this from the shelves and had a read through the opening pages, I was intrigued enough to take it home and read it through. Alain de Botton's laid-back, easy-reading style and his liberal usage of pictures means it's a quick read. This is the only reason I made it to the end: the content itself was very disappointing. The journalistic and slightly patronising tone which de Botton utilises means that he can only ever make superficial points, and many of the points he does make in more depth feel desperate, and sometimes just unresearched.

His suggestions as to how we could improve secular society, including by building temples for reflection and suchlike, often seem arbitrary; one might throw them out there at a dinner table and follow it up with "I dunno, I'm just brainstorming here", or something equally vague, but it has no place in a philosophical text. Most of the book feels like it's still in these experimental, unconsidered stages, including the photoshopped pictures of his futuristic secular-cum-religious world, which are at times simply embarrassing, and always unnecessary. There are times when his whole philosophy seems skin-deep, such as when he argues that the human race is too often self-absorbed, not considering its transitional place in Nature and the Universe. This, he suggests, should lead to us moderating our emotions and being more understanding and empathetic. However, others could, and have, argued, using the same basic assumption, that our meaninglessness could entitle us to live our own transitory life as we wish. Or, as our tiny self is the only thing we will ever truly know, self-fulfilment and hedonism are the only paths in which we can believe. I do not subscribe to this viewpoint, but at no point does de Botton suggest he has even considered it. His basic assumption that we must be nice, friendly, kind, self-controlled people is bland and never defended.

At no point does de Botton consider that perhaps secular society abandoned things such as sermons because of the principle of moral relativism, which suggests that a government preaching any specific moral doctrine, however secular, is partisan, and in multi-cultural countries can lead to racism and exclusion. Equally, the observance of specific rituals such as having every day of the year given over to some 'secular Saint', like Shakespeare or Compte, completely ignores the fact that Shakespeare has no absolute power to heal or provide guidance, and leaves some readers cold. We abandoned this kind of proscription because it was ignorant and repressive of opposing beliefs. What moral guidelines does de Botton suggest his 'secular priesthood' should lay down? If they're each allowed their own ideas, and we have a choice in whether to agree, they're no better than the small-scale writers of whom he is so dismissive. I assume a thinker like de Botton has thought of these things, but if he did see the great number of potential counter-arguments, he did not bother to address them.

I would agree there are elements of religion which are admirable, but I frequently do not agree with the selections de Botton makes, and he rarely explains his decision to include certain themes. Architecture, for example. He generalises that modern architecture is functional but ugly and old Catholic architecture instead shows an understanding of the needs of the soul. I completely disagree. This suggests that architectural beauty is linked to vulgar decoration and ornamentation; whilst I would accept that grey concrete is not heart-warming, I'd say the architecture of cathedrals is often a sickening show of self-importance on the part of the church, perhaps in honour of God's enormity, but in that sense not in any way a concept the secular world would want to employ.

One argument that could be seen as genuinely offensive is de Botton's suggestion that places of education ignore all the higher needs of their students. Has de Botton ever read an English syllabus? He suggests specifically during the section on education that we never attempt to extrapolate what 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' may tell us about relationships and love, for example. This was a question posed by the AQA A-level syllabus this very year. I think decent lecturers in the Humanities would be annoyed by de Botton's flippant suggestion that there is no attempt to provide extra-curricular guidance for the students. Yes, ihe level of moral propaganda and brain-washing in the Humanities has definitely decreased with secularisation, but not at the expense of moral discussion or questioning; it just gathers opinions in a less self-reverent and exclusive manner. This is just an example, but it is not the only place where this book is seriously lacking any kind of real evidence. When de Botton does provide evidence, it comes as a pleasant and notable surprise.

As I wrote this review, I felt rather uncharitable (which would make me de Botton's perfect misguided atheist, I suppose), but I have written it to counterbalance the 5-star reviews which suggest that this book will somehow leave you feeling fulfilled and ready to face life with new eyes. To me, as I have explained, it felt superficial, deliberately forgetful of inconvenient opposing philosophies, unresearched and barely worth reading, but for a few truisms and astute observations, mostly available from the mouths of other famous people on quotegarden.com.
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48 of 58 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A missed opportunity and an evidence free zone, 20 Feb 2012
By 
Stephen Balchin (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I'm an atheist, and come to this having read God is Not Great and the God Delusion. I also wanted to like this book, I was looking for something would assess what it was that religion offered to people and what we would sensibly keep in a secular society.

Sadly this really didn't do it. Oh there's lots of nice ideas: the Jewish day of atonement is a useful ritual which gives everyone an excuse to say sorry for things; religious meals bring people together who otherwise wouldn't speak to each other - but the analysis really doesn't get any more deep than that. Sadly this is a Alain de Botton polemic, the argument full of anecdote, assertion, and straw man assessments of what non-religious societies value. This book doesn't attempt to make any assessment of what makes religious ritual work (eg is the belief in God bit critical??), any real critical assessment of whether they can be carried over to a secular world, or even whether the secular world has already absorbed some of these approaches - after all atheists already do do Christmas, and faith in football teams looks pretty religious to me.

To give a couple of examples he cites Pentecostal churches and their 'Yes Lord!' enthusiasm as something academics should aspire to in teaching people. I can already see this 'religious' enthusiasm in the secular world at political rallies and at Glastonbury in front of the biggest bands (de Botton seems to have missed this). But I'd want to keep it as far away as possible from universities and learning which I'd hope would be about questioning based on evidence and rather than repetition and chanting.

As another example he cites the Catholic Mass as something that brings everyone together and makes them equal, breaking down existing hierarchies. Though I appreciate the sentiment churches in Europe often had reserved seating for the upper classes, and can easily reflect back a very class bound society (note the verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful which sings of "the rich man at his castle the poor man at his gate"). There's little real acknowledgement that there's some things we must learn to do from religions and some things we should keenly learn not to do - and how we distinguish them, or the conditions which generate the good or the bad.

I can't help thinking that an this book would have benefitted from talking to - say an anthropologist or a psychologist along the way - or anyone who new how to engage with evidence gathering. Richard Leyard and his work on happiness do some of this work on what builds community, morality and happiness in a much more evidence based way (and without banging on about either God or a lack of God). There was a good idea in this book, sadly not a strong execution.

(And finally some people obviously find de Botton's style witty and engaging. Really can't see it myself, but each to his or her own on that issue.)
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48 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good guide for those who don't believe in miracles but cannot agree religion is complete balderdash, 30 Jan 2012
By 
Kazuma (Tokyo, Japan) - See all my reviews
Alain de Botton's new book "Religion for Atheists" is a bold attempt to convince atheists, or those who don't believe in the existence of God, that it is possible to derive important lessons from religions around the world without accepting any supernatural claims they might make. Mr. de Botton is unequivocal about his atheistic stance, and frankly says that he doesn't believe in any supernatural being or phenomenon. But this atheistic position that many people probably adopt today, he claims, should not prevent them from appreciating the effective ways religions have provided to meet what he calls the needs of souls that tend all too often to be left unattended in our secularized world but remain none the less existent.

Based on this central principle, he refers to various fields ranging from education to architecture and shows us how religions have traditionally interpreted or dealt with the problems typically associated with those fields. For example, we tend to assume that the purpose of education is to impart valuable information. Hence our puzzlement over a university lecture that focuses exclusively on certain obscure literary works of a foreign thinker who died several thousand years ago, however much importance its lecturer argues they have. This kind of situation happens because of the fact that education has forgotten its original mission: to fill the moral vacuum that was left by the ebbing of the influence of religion. Religions used to teach each of its adherents how to find happiness, how to deal with suffering, and how to become a better, mature person---a kind of therapeutic pedagogy, the need for which remains as strong as ever despite the fact that we are now living in a godless, secular world. Mr. de Botton therefore argues that education, especially in the field of humanities, should ideally provide a reasonable substitute.

Another field that he zeros in on is art. Mr. de Botton complains that the high esteem we hold museums in is made almost useless by our nonsensical prejudice that art should be only for its own sake. Religions have used works of art as important tools of reminding us of those qualities that we understand at heart are important but too often forget or fail to act upon, and have had no qualm about admitting art serves a utilitarian purpose, like that of enhancing our happiness or of healing our souls. This attitude is, according to Mr. de Botton, still relevant today, and should influence ways we appreciate works of art.

These considerations, provocative as they may be, are deeply interesting and thought-provoking. Some of his ideas, however, are more controversial. For instance, in a section on the contrast between libertarianism and paternalism, he says religious paternalism used to help people be better than they would have been left to their own devices, whereas libertarianism, in which people are permitted to do whatever they like as long as they are law abiders, leaves people at a loss for where to seek moral guidance. But it is precisely because one's conviction that s/he has an infallible understanding of what is truly good or bad for humanity brought about tremendous bloodshed that our predecessors decided to enshrine the rights of individual freedom. Even if some aspects of paternalism are indeed appealing, it seems to be difficult to let go of the well-cherished principle that every individual is a sovereign over himself.

Another topic some might find unpalatable is his discussion of The Book of Job, which he claims is one of the most consoling texts for atheists. In this biblical story, Job, a wealthy, happy man, experienced a series of grave misfortunes, lost his children, his wealth and even his health. His neighbors said that he must have sinned and been punished, but he was convinced of his innocence and began to doubt the benevolence of God. At this point God admonished him for his haughtiness. Compared with the vastness of the universe and its mysteries, human beings were petty, insignificant creatures, and as such they had no qualification to fathom God's intentions. After this admonition, Job came to realize the pettiness of human life and the nothingness of his own existence. This story, says Mr. de Botton, helps us, like Job, to realize how small and how insignificant our everyday troubles and sorrows are, in comparison with the grandeur of the universe. But if you notice an analogy between what Job experienced and the tsunami that people in the north eastern part of Japan went through last year, Mr. de Botton's argument becomes less convincing. For how many would agree that those who got indignant at the disaster's unfairness were arrogant for presuming to judge what's fair and unfair? How many would say that the disastrous event, which claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives, reminded people of the smallness of their everyday desires and sufferings and the nothingness of their own existence? Very few, indeed.

Notwithstanding these controversial points, this book as a whole is an interesting attempt to add a new dimension to, and therefore stimulate, the otherwise insipid debates between the religious and the non-religious fundamentalists.
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56 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic De Botton, 26 Jan 2012
The good thing about Kiljoy's review is that no one is going to take it seriously. The bad news is that it immediately tars with a one-star average rating a book that deserves four or five. Unlike Kiljoy, I have actually read the book in question and am happy to report it does all the things we have come to know and love in de Botton's work: the way he makes complex ideas friendly and accessible, the way he enables you to see things you've always taken for granted in a completely new, exciting and enlightening way. You may disagree with his views on religion - I don't think I'm in any rush to sign up to his new one - but with de Botton it's not the destination that matters, so much as the delightfully meandering journey in such matchlessly charming company.
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43 of 53 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Atheism for the Religious?, 16 Sep 2012
This book is weird. By the time I got to the suggestion that we reintroduce a period of debauchery once a year in newly created "Agape Restaurants", because people hate following the rules all the time, I thought I must be reading it wrong. Was it some kind of satire? Had de Botton lost his mind?

As another reviewer noted, de Botton appears to be a religious person in all but name. He refers tediously often to the "human soul" and its needs, but fails to question what this entity is. Had history favoured Hippocrates, the ancient physicalist, rather than Plato's dualism, we might be in a better position now.

De Botton's view of atheism and secular society, on the other hand, is so dismal that it rivals some of the worst pronouncements from pulpits. We are lost, helpless children, insane, violent, forgetful and greedy. His remedy is to celebrate secular "saints" and "sacraments" to provide guidance and succour, now that religion is, supposedly, gone. He does not bother to establish whether modern culture is in any real sense secular, but considers that feature the source of its sickness anyway. A quick google shows that non-religious people make up somewhere in the region of 10 percent of the world, and my experience is it's stuffed full of magical thinkers like himself. He never once considers how much religion might be contributing to societies' ills.

Unfathomably, de Botton hardly mentions science (surely the sharpest tool sculpting atheism) and when he does, he makes these points (paraphrased): scientists talk in technical language that leaves him cold; there are awesome vistas of time and distance that science could use to teach us perspective instead of boring facts; therefore we should build various pieces of architecture, disregarding scientific education, simply to inspire us with awe. To show how marvellous science could be, he sketches a Temple to Perspective, a tower 46 m high, with a layer 1 mm thick made of gold at the base to represent humanity's time on Earth in proportion to the latter's age, which seems a monumentally silly idea to me.

He may also have named a few scientists as examples of "secular saints" on whose valour we should meditate on given days, although he doesn't seem to have learned much of their actual work. He doesn't get it: scientific awe and guidance only follow from learning actual facts.

De Botton is steeped in a different aspect of human culture: literature, philosophy, art - and apparently he does not understand how deeply these have been influenced by Judeo-Christian psychology. He sees "the human soul" as philosophers have handed it down to us, a mental or spiritual entity composed of various ideal aspects, or a vessel requiring filling with virtues. Had he studied psychology - the science, that is, rather than the inventions of mere thinkers - he might know that our brains are hard-wired to navigate the social world as peaceably and successfully as possible. Indeed, if anything can, a scientific understanding of evolution, of our impulses to compete and co-operate, could empower us to forge a peaceful global future. It seems pretty clear by now that temples and sermons have failed to do it. Ironically, de Botton is didactic and authoritarian, which would seem to be one of the biggest barriers to inter-cultural harmony. He's envisaged a truly disturbing Orwellian dystopia of statutory moral education, with giant electronic billboards depicting Forgiveness, where the evil Footsie used to be.

I am shocked that a philosopher could tackle this problem without asking what goodness and evil mean to an atheist, when a moral vacuum is perhaps the greatest fear of the believer. He colludes with this fear and appears to feel it acutely himself. He paints a pessimistic view of people, just as Christianity does, and chides modernity for its optimism. When an exponentially increasing proportion of the world learns most of its moral sense and factual information online, peer-to-peer (I don't think he mentioned the Internet once), he wants grand architecture and a string of identically branded therapy shops to save us from our pathetic selves. It really does make more sense to reverse the title. This is a prejudiced, fearful book about atheism, and from his metaphysical perspective atheism looks pretty ugly.
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