Alain de Botton on atheism and religion


Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton (Random House) reviewed by Boyd Tonkin

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For English writers and thinkers, the urge to rescue the core values of a waning Christianity for secular culture drove literary explorations and educational ventures for over a hundred years. This aching nostalgia for an impossible faith and its masterworks has itself left some fine monuments, from Matthew Arnold in the 1860s listening to the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the ebbing Sea of Faith on Dover Beach, to Philip Larkin, Church Going as a respectful sceptic to ‘A serious house on serious earth... In whose blent air all our compulsions meet’.

This experience, of emotional affinity shorn of any doctrinal attachment, spanned several generations. It moulded my childhood, certainly: we didn't really go to church but we did go to churches, with the sacred volumes of Pevsner's Buildings of England lodged in the glove box of the car. And strong personalities within liberal Anglicanism (with counterparts in reform Judaism) held out a friendly hand from the side of the faithful.

For anyone with this background, the new wars of, and against, religion spearheaded by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens felt thoroughly alien. A strict dualism, with the snarling take-no-prisoners rhetoric of the atheist camp eagerly answered by the renewed polemics of the party of God, replaced the familiar fuzz of sympathetic doubt.

This long history gives a powerful springboard for Alain de Botton's latest leap into the dark. The popular philosopher seeks to enlist the social and emotional virtues of organised religion for unbelief, and to suggest ways in which the "useful, interesting and consoling" aspects of faith might take on new shapes in secular institutions. Of course, for any believer sure that ‘religions are not a buffet’, this pick-and-mix approach to ritual and tradition may outrage. The critic Terry Eagleton, steeped equally in Catholicism and Marxism, has voiced his disgust.



Alain de Botton speaks about his book

Alain de Botton writes about his book

John Crace briefly on Alain de Botton

Tom Payne comment on Alain de Botton’s new book

Terry Eagleton v Alain de Botton

Wikipedia profiles Alain de Botton

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