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103 of 123 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Unconvincing. Unnecessary., 21 Feb 2012
This review is from: Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion (Hardcover)
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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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Feb 2012 21:32:56 GMT
J. Cooper says:
"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.'"

Very well said. This is what I thought when I poked through the book, and worried the whole book would be as superficial. (Not terrible or dry or wrong, just lacking depth.) Thanks.

Posted on 13 Mar 2012 21:46:54 GMT
Neil says:
A very apt and thoughtful review. Reflects my own opinions very nicely. I struggled to finish the book precisely because it was "unresearched and barely worth reading". It is a great pity, because the fundamental idea to learn from religious communities is good. But when I read a book about it I want to feel the author has thought about it a little bit more deeply than I have, and here I didn't feel that was the case.

Posted on 14 Mar 2012 01:08:06 GMT
Last edited by the author on 14 Mar 2012 01:08:30 GMT
FurryMoses says:
This review had about 30/40 helpful votes at the time of my writing.
It just goes to show that people are using the "was this review helpful" as a way to downvote who they disagree with rather than as a guide to a good review.
Because this is a great review, exactly the sort of thoughtful and well constructed prose you want when considering a purchase.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Mar 2013 08:35:52 GMT
Last edited by the author on 1 Mar 2013 08:37:20 GMT
Jack Wonder says:
I vote this to be almost an ideal review! Whilst being very critical, it is `well researched' and furnished with examples that justify the author's view. It is also clearly and elegantly written. My experience with readers' opinion of my own reviews is that negative reviews, even if well substantiated, are not well liked. Many people are driven by the will to delusion rather the will to truth. They would rather `turn their heads and pretend that they just don't see'.

Posted on 22 Mar 2013 02:52:34 GMT
Sam Malone says:
"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...."

De Botton actually suggested that humans meditate on their temporary presence in the Universe not in order to make themselves more understanding and empathetic towards others, but instead to gain valuable perspective on their own problems and neuroses. An important difference in the context of your argument.

A good critical review nonetheless.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Mar 2013 02:37:23 GMT
Sam Malone says:
"It just goes to show that people are using the "was this review helpful" as a way to downvote who they disagree with rather than as a guide to a good review"

Hardly breaking news, is it? That's always been the case since Amazon introduced a ratings-type system for product reviews.

Posted on 16 Jun 2013 15:48:10 BDT
PR says:
In her review Kate Bradley says, ' ... 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." What would an absolute power to heal be? Are all healing powers absolute? Are some of them relative? Has she missed all the insightful guidance in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets? Since she uses the present tense, is she in fact referring to the words of Shakespeare, rather than the man himself? I haven't read de Botton's book, but this negative review, which assumes the author has done the protestant thing of thinking that a book can stand as an absolute reference, makes me want to read it to find out if that is in fact what he's done.
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