83 of 91 people found the following review helpful
An absolute joy to read
, 21 Feb. 2012
This review is from: Religion for Atheists: A non-believer's guide to the uses of religion (Hardcover)
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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