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Food for the Atheist's (and Believer's) Soul,
This review is from: Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion (Hardcover)Anyone, whether atheist or not, who wants to enrich his or her life by nourishing within it that quality which in Christian language is called 'soul', will find this book a treasure trove of insights and practical suggestions. Although himself a professed atheist, Alain de Botton acknowledges the vital contribution that religion has made in the lives of both individual believers and collectively in societies and nation states. Time and again, in reading this book, the soul within me was moved by his understanding of and concern for the bewilderment I sometimes feel, and the fragile vulnerability I experience in the attempt to live a full life in modern secular society.
Take, for instance, his chapter on 'Tenderness'. Why does it take an atheist to validate for me more convincingly than ever before the Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary? de Botton pictures an exhausted middle-aged man stepping inside a dark but warm and candle-lit chapel. 'He is stricken by feelings of remorse, foreboding and loneliness.' He looks up at a painting showing 'a tender, sympathetic, gentle young woman ... she gazes back at him with infinite care - and, without his having to say a word, seems to understand everything'. Helpfully included in the chapter is an image of 'The Madonna in Sorrow' by Giovanni Battista Salvi. (de Botton refers to other religions but he is clearly a Christian atheist, and a Catholic rather than a Protestant one!) de Botton asserts that whether the Virgin Mary existed is the wrong question to ask. Rather, what does she reveal 'about our emotional requirements - and, in particular, on what becomes of these demands when we lose our faith'.
Now take the chapter on 'Art'. What is the purpose of art? de Botton shows how the arrangement of works of Art in the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari church in Venice assists the mission of 'rebalancing our souls'. Compared to this, 'the apparent order of the modern museum is at heart a profound disorder' - for it does nothing to serve the needs of the soul - the purpose of art. Included in the chapter is a photograph by Thomas Struth of bored-looking people looking (or not) at a picture in a gallery with the caption 'it can be so hard not to think of the cafeteria'. (I know the feeling!) Museums, say de Botton, should not just display objects, but 'should be places that use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise'. He suggests museums could have a 'Gallery of Suffering' and a 'Gallery of Compassion', rather than galleries devoted to, for instance, 'The Nineteenth Century' and 'The Northern Italian School'. I would find museums having art arranged according to de Botton's suggestion much more alluring.
If you feel the world has lost its soul, and that you have lost yours with it, then whether you are an atheist of not, this book will nourish you.