Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion (Alain de Botton, 2012)

Trying to see… more clearly
One way we express our raison d’être in Ransom is this: we desire to help Christians deepen their discipleship by developing discernment. It’s a catchy phrase, with nice alliteration, so it works well as a description.

It’s what we’ve tried to be about in everything we’ve done—in our writing, our travel and speaking, or when we’re with people at Toad Hall or away. From the beginning it’s been the passion that has animated us, the calling we’ve sensed impressed on our souls. We remain convinced that being discerning is essential to human flourishing. After all, being faithful in a pluralistic and fallen world requires having a means by which we can thread our way through the various truth-claims that vie for acceptance. It doesn’t mean having all the answers—no one can claim that, and we don’t really need it. Instead, discernment involves growing in wisdom, nurturing skill in increasingly seeing things from the perspective of the truth of God’s word, though we’ll never achieve it perfectly of course.

The image that perhaps best captures this process is the idea of clarity, a lens we can use through which confusing details can be brought into sharper focus. St Paul famously claimed that even in the best of circumstances we “see in a mirror, dimly,” or as the old King James version renders it, “through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Either way, the idea is the same: part of the brokenness of the world means we see less clearly than we would like along a path that is far less benign than we would prefer. It’s like we are peering through a window and find it smudged, streaked with grime so that no matter how long we look the clarity we want keeps eluding us. And whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a lens through which we look at life and reality, a view of the world that we use to bring meaning to the myriad, often confusing details that confront us. Developing discernment, then, refers to developing skill in clarifying how we see. Of refining our ability to focus in on the details of life and culture so that we can assess them in light of the things that matter most.

St Paul never suggests we can get fully and completely past the dim mirror—that is a grace that awaits us. In God’s presence, rather than seeing only reflected things we will see “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Then, he says, we will “know fully,” which doesn’t mean we will have all knowledge (we will remain finite) but that the dimness that obscures our vision of reality will be removed.

Living in a world plagued with shadows does not mean that we are left to bumble around in the dark. Many Christians seem to be content to live this way. They blunder up against something new and react, much like when trying to find the bathroom at night and discover the sharp edge of a coffee table with their shin. It’s embarrassing to be caught unawares, and so we turn away a bit angry, reacting with whatever comes to mind at the moment. This is not true discipleship. A disciple follows his Lord, and being reactionary is the very opposite to the way Jesus lived. Christ did not react, or bumble about, but lived intentionally, faithful to his Father.

Developing discernment includes answering a series of simple yet probing questions that together serve to clarify the things that confront us. They help bring the things of the world into clearer focus, acting like a lens or glass that helps us see. Shadows remain, of course—the darkness will be finally erased only when the King of light appears—but the process is a like a guide so we can do more than merely react.

I thought about this when I learned that Alain de Botton had published a new book. He is an author I have appreciated ever since being entranced by The Architecture of Happiness (2008), a sensitive reflection on how the spaces of our lives and world touch on what it means to be human. His latest book turns out to be on religion, which made me all the more eager to read it.

What does he say?
Alain de Botton is a convinced atheist who is convinced there are elements of religious belief and practice that secularists would be wise to learn from and borrow. He makes his case in Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. “The premise of this book,” de Botton says, “is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling—and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.” [p. 11-12]

After an initial chapter in which de Botton identifies his purpose, he addresses chapters on a succession of topics he believes are areas in which religion might be usefully mined by secularists: community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions.

What follows is an attempt to read the faiths, primarily Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism, in the hope of gleaning insights which might be of use within secular life, particularly in relation to the challenges of community and of mental and bodily suffering. The underlying thesis is not that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often secularized badly—inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have unnecessarily surrendered some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faiths. [p. 16-17]

De Botton does not take the time to defend atheism, nor does he provide reasons to disbelieve religious claims. Rather, he assumes his position, stating it clearly so readers are in no doubt about his worldview and proceeds on the quest he has set as his purpose.

This first question must always be answered as objectively as possible if it is to be the first facet of the lens that clarifies our vision. Our goal must be to treat the author and their ideas with the dignity they are due as creatures made in God’s image.

What is attractive?
If something is true but appears implausible, it will be harder to believe. And ideas that are false, in part or in whole, may seem believable if they are presented in a way that makes them plausible. Identifying what is attractive, made plausible—to Christians and/or to those who do not share our deepest convictions and values helps bring into clearer focus whatever of our world we happen to be considering.

Alain de Botton is one of those rare philosophers who refused to remain in the cloisters of academia. He believes that the real point of philosophy, of the pursuit of truth and beauty, is to help people live well. He seems to be slowly gaining attention through his published works and through the innovative and creative School of Life ( that he helped establish in London. De Botton’s interests range widely. He is a thoughtful generalist with endless curiosity, someone who is always asking what it means to flourish as human beings in society and eagerly explores the full range of life and culture. In this he strikes me as standing in the tradition of the ancient Hebrew wisdom literature that identifies wisdom as the art of living well. This breadth of interest and depth of concern in persons and society make de Botton an important voice in a world where the speed of life, the constant clamor of media and distraction, and the flood of consumerist values make quiet reflection a rare commodity and threaten the very fabric of what it means to live as creatures made in the image of a personal God.

Religion for Atheists is a pleasure to read because de Botton cares about words, desires to be persuasive and so composes prose that is thoughtfully crafted and beautifully rendered. Here he is making the argument that lecturing is an insufficient method of teaching young adults:

defenders of secular university education… implicitly maintain that people will be properly affected by concepts even when they hear about them only once or twice, at the age of twenty, before a fifty-year career in finance or market research, via a lecturer standing in a bare room speaking in a monotone. According to this view, ideas may fall out of the mind in much the same random order as the contents of an upturned handbag, or may be expressed with all the graceless banality of an instruction manual, without threatening the overall purpose of intellectual endeavour. [p. 125]

And here de Botton reflects on what he calls pessimism, a term he uses to refer to the view that human being are deeply flawed—even evil at heart—rather than inherently good:

A pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizon. Modern secular optimists, on the other hand, with their well-developed sense of entitlement, generally fail to savour any epiphanies of everyday life as they busy themselves with the construction of earthly paradise. [p. 188]

As I read de Botton’s work I always reread some sentences and paragraphs—or occasionally read them aloud to whoever is nearby—not merely to be certain I have understood correctly but to relish them as the good prose they are.

Where do I agree? Why?
With this question we cross a line from objective observation to personal response. Our focus is sharpened by bringing our deepest convictions and values to bear on the object of our discernment—as a Christian that means trying to see it through the lens of the biblical story, Creation, Fall, redemption and Restoration.

Alain de Botton is a keen observer of our world, and his assessment that secular society has failed to develop means whereby to nurture humanness seems to me to be unassailable. His analysis in Religion for Atheists is convincing, and the fact that he draws his evidence from such a wide swath of Western culture and society only makes his conclusion more persuasive. Besides, this is hardly a novel argument; what is novel is de Botton’s argument that the solution is that secularists borrow from religion means to rectify the imbalance.

As a Christian I agree with de Botton that much of secular society seems antithetical to our flourishing as human beings. The world was created good, but in the fall the shalom of God is shattered. Much education is geared to produce skilled workers rather than wise persons who are skilled at living. Much architecture is designed for efficiency or according to abstract ideals so that the only things out of place within these spaces are persons craving a sense of home. And the frantic pace of life along with the constant pressure of media and technology rob us of the wonder of silence, the chance to rest, and engage in unhurried conversation and the fostering of uninterrupted creativity. De Botton’s diagnosis, it seems to me, is correct, his description of social ills is astute, and his yearning for a society that is more in tune with our deepest yearnings as human beings is admirable. In this de Botton displays what Christians term common grace, an embrace of truth that is rooted in being made in the image of God (Romans 2:14-15).

I agree with de Botton that religion offers secular society a rich tradition that contains potential solutions to the social ills he has identified. It is God’s law, the ancient psalmist insists, that allows human beings to prosper (Psalm 1). Though I share a deep respect for the advance of science and cherish its wealth, science alone is insufficient to adequately answer all the questions that must be addressed if society is to reflect the deepest needs of the human heart.

When de Botton draws from Christianity in Religion for Atheists he often has Catholicism in mind. The Catholic veneration of relics, Marian devotion, stations of the cross, cult of saints, and sacrament of confession are among the many observances he examines to uncover how these rituals and traditions meet deep human needs. Once, however, he turns his gaze specifically on Protestantism—in his chapter on architecture—and his conclusion is scathing.

When Protestantism took hold in northern Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century, it manifested an extreme hostility towards the visual arts, attacking Catholics for their complicated and richly decorated buildings. “For anyone to arrive at God the Creator, he needs only Scripture as his Guide and Teacher,” insisted John Calvin, giving voice to the anti-aesthetic sentiment of many in the new denomination. What mattered to Protestants was the written word. This, rather than elaborate architecture, would be enough to lead us to God. Devotion could be fostered by a Bible in a bare room just as well as it could in the nave of a jewel-encrusted cathedral. Indeed, there was a risk that through their sensory richness, sumptuous buildings could distract us, making us prefer beauty over holiness. It was no coincidence that Protestant reformers presided over repeated incidents of aesthetic desecration, during which statues were smashed, paintings burnt and alabaster angels brutally separated from their wings…

Not coincidentally, surely, it was the Protestant countries in Europe which first witnessed the extremes of ugliness that would become so typical of the modern world. Manchester, Leeds and other cities like them subjected their inhabitants to hitherto unparalleled degrees of unsightliness, as if they were testing to the full John Calvin’s contention that architecture and art have no role to play in the condition of our souls and that a godly life can therefore satisfactorily unfold in a slum tenement with a view on to an open-cast coal mine, just so long as there is a Bible to hand. [p. 248-251, 254]

Sadly, though I would quibble over details, I must confess guilty as charged. And I say this not merely as a Protestant, but as a Calvinist. It is difficult today to comprehend the passion ignited in those who were freed from the crude idolatry of medieval Catholicism towards the artifacts that had kept them burdened under a weight of inexorable guilt. The message that it was not their penance but Christ’s sacrifice that made them right with God filled them with contempt for the religious objects that had long existed as constant reminders that they could never do enough to merit divine favor. I wish they had carefully collected all the statues and decorations and built museums to safely house them, but that was not to be. It is sad, too, that a needed ecclesiastical iconoclasm in the sixteenth century hardened into a dogmatic rejection of beauty and sacred art in the Reformed movement, but that legacy still haunts us. In this the disciples of Calvin have honored his biblical teaching on the danger of idolatry but ignored his equally biblical teaching on the significance of art. Thankfully some thinkers in this tradition are attempting to restore a proper understanding and practice—a good example is William Dyrness’ Visual Faith (Baker, 2001).

What would I challenge? Why?
In a book with as much detail as is included in Religion for Atheists, it is possible to get sidetracked into endlessly discussing minor disagreements, but that should be resisted. Such things are minor and their pursuit sidetracks us from the primary issues. Besides, when sweeping cultural analysis is attempted it is possible to disagree on specific parts of the argument while agreeing with the overall conclusions.

Only once did I pause and think that a statement was so patently misguided as to need comment. While writing about Marian devotion, de Botton questions not only the mystical meaning of the practice but also the historicity of Mary. “How could any reasonable adult trust in the existence of a woman,” he writes, “who lived several thousand years ago (if she ever lived at all)…?” [p. 168] I do not question his inability to comprehend Marian devotion—I question that myself as a Protestant. His comment about her historicity, however, given in what appears to be a casual aside, surprises me. I understand the unlikely nature of history recording the story of a young woman from a remote province in the Roman Empire in the first century. That is rare, indeed. I also understand that there are very limited records of her, namely, the Gospels of the New Testament. Still, the issue of the historicity of the New Testament documents has been carefully explored. Accusations of inaccuracy need to be made with greater care and scholarship than this, as the work of F. F. Bruce and N. T. Wright demonstrates. In this de Botton’s aside reminds me of a snarky comment made by a preacher to dismissively question some secular claim.

The primary challenge I wish to raise, however, comes from my conviction that the Christian story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration holds together so brilliantly as a coherent worldview. Together they provide answers to the perennial questions of human life and existence, so the faith is not merely a random collection of ideas and practices, as Ellis Potter demonstrates in 3 Theories of Everything (2012). Separate the practices from the foundational beliefs from which they arose and the practices soon devolve into lifeless formulas and worse, burdensome reminders of our inability to achieve our ideals. As a Christian I am not certain that secularism can muster the same coherence as a worldview.

De Botton says that secular society “has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes that atheists typically find it impossible to live with because they seem too closely associated with, to quote Nietzsche’s useful phrase, ‘the bad odours of religion’” [p. 14]. He argues “not that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often secularized badly” [p. 17].

The observation that secularism has failed to provide a coherent framework for a humanizing social system is difficult to dispute. “The plain fact,” Os Guinness writes, “is that no free and lasting civilization anywhere in history has so far been built on atheist foundations. At the very least, it would be a welcome change for secularists to shift from their strident attacks on religiously based virtues to building their own replacements and attempting to persuade a majority of their fellow citizens of their merits” [A Free People’s Suicide (2012) p. 120]. The shift that Guinness calls for is embodied in Alain de Botton’s work and demonstrated in The School of Life. This represents, it seems to me a courageous and admirable effort.

One challenge that comes to mind is why de Botton’s vision of the good life should be, on purely secular terms, the preferred one. How does one make a compelling case within the worldview of atheism that human flourishing along the lines desired by de Botton is the vision of life that should shape not just our individual lives but the contours of society? Though de Botton and I would be co-belligerents in rejecting a vision for society based on social Darwinism, it is difficult for me to imagine how anyone could reject that possibility as incompatible with basic secularist assumptions. Once the basic assumptions of the Christian worldview are granted—that God exists and has spoken—virtue is not up for debate. Is the same true for secularism?

Another challenge is whether de Botton’s desire to borrow from religion will work. As Christians learn from bitter experience most Christian practice quickly becomes deadening when removed from the assumptions that gave rise to it in the first place. As someone who believes in prayer, for example, and acknowledges the way the practice deepens our humanness (by making us grateful, providing moments of quiet reflection, and so much more) let me suggest that it is not called a spiritual discipline for nothing. It is difficult to nurture a life of prayer, and I have worked at it for six decades. Only the conviction that a personal God exists, calls me into relationship, hears, and acts in human history is sufficient motivation to keep praying when little seems to result from my attempts.

Accepting that existence is inherently frustrating, that we are forever hemmed in by atrocious realities, can give us the impetus to say ‘Thank you’ a little more often. It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude: we no longer offer up thanks for harvests, meals, bees or clement weather. On a superficial level, we might suppose that this is because there is no one to say ‘Thank you’ to. But at base it seems more a matter of ambition and expectation. [p. 188]

Without for a moment suggesting that ambition and expectation do not fit into the difficulty let me say this does not jive with my experience. Having someone to speak to—being convinced by good and sufficient evidence that God exists and is the personal infinite God of Scripture—makes all the difference in the world.

Recently Alain de Botton posted a series of “secular prayers”:

Secular prayer: for those who desperately need sleep, rest and calm but have forgotten how to find it.
Secular prayer: for those terrified of financial humiliation and of losing the love and respect of those they want to protect.
Secular prayer: for those who adore their children but despair of coping with their demands and uncontrollable ways.
Secular prayer: for those desperate to make an authentic contribution to society but who agonisingly don’t know how.
Secular prayer: for those who were badly treated and humiliated and who, despite constant effort, can’t forget and recover.
Secular prayer: for those who started marriage with the best intentions but can’t be the person they should to make it work.
Secular prayer: for those gripped by anxieties and phobias that have no basis in reason and yet make an ordinary life hell.
Secular prayer: for those unknowingly incubating the mortal diseases that will make 2013 their last.
Secular prayer: for those who long for a true friend, someone with whom it’s possible to be totally weak—and still be loved.
Secular prayer: for those who need more than anything to find perspective; a look at themselves from a distant star. []

I am not a secularist. God exists and life makes sense only when seen through the lens of that conviction. The beauty of creation, the order of the cosmos, the humanness that we share, the coherence of the Scriptural story, and the historical fact of an empty tomb form a body of evidence that is to my mind and heart compelling. Given this, prayer makes sense, and the Christian practices of prayer I follow remind me of God’s presence and invite my response, both gratitude and request. I find de Botton’s prayers sensitive and appealing—I prayed them myself as they appeared on Twitter. What I don’t understand is how this can become a compelling practice out of a worldview in which the person at prayer believes their act is done in an impersonal universe in which no final purpose is possible. That challenge will be fascinating to watch unfold as de Botton continues his writing and lecturing.

How can this be discussed winsomely in our pluralistic world?
Intentionally examining something through the lens of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration allows us to see where we agree and disagree, and allow us to reflect on why. And since we live in a pluralistic world where everyone does not share our convictions and values, reflecting on how we can live and talk about these issues in an understandable way provides us with practical ideas about how we can demonstrate our position winsomely.

As Os Guinness demonstrates in A Free People’s Suicide, democratic freedom and humane civility can be maintained only in a society whose citizens aspire to virtue. As a Christian I have doubts about de Botton’s program, for the reasons I have explained. Still, his program is admirable, and I pray he is successful in stimulating his fellow secularists to lives of love and good works. If I lived in London I would eagerly attend some of the events sponsored by The School of Life. And as a Christian I pray that some of the secularists who explore the humanizing aspects of Christian practice might discover the consoling nature of the beliefs that underlie those practices. If speaking de Botton’s secular prayers is attractive, imagine actually praying them to a Father who is in the process of restoring this broken world so that in the end righteousness covers the creation as water covers the sea.

I recommend Religion for Atheists to Christians for several reasons. First, Alain de Botton models how to communicate clearly and with civility when examining a worldview with which one disagrees. Sadly the public square in America is filled with rhetoric that is unkind and sometimes abusive, and many Christians are the ones expressing their opinions. I am grateful for the tone and approach demonstrated in Religion for Atheists. De Botton’s examination of my faith reminds me of the care I need to take when examining his. It is a model worth emulating.

Second, it is very refreshing when someone who rejects my faith takes an appreciative look at Christianity and records their impressions. I usually think about prayer, for example, as prayer to God but pass over the ways the practice of prayer is humanizing. That it is humanizing is not surprising since we believe God made us for himself so all aspects of our relationship with him will enhance our life and existence as his creatures. His reflections as a disbeliever gave me new eyes to see what I believe.

And finally, it is challenging to realize that my Christian view of the ills of modern society is echoed in the analysis of observers who do not share my deepest convictions and values. Alain de Botton is a convinced atheist and I am a convinced Christian, yet we are co-belligerents in wanting secular society to more deeply reflect and nourish the deepest yearnings of what it means to be human. I suspect I would enjoy him as a friend.
Reading Religion for Atheists does not make me want to go out and change society—a task for which I am neither called or in a position to try to accomplish. It makes me want to begin at home, among the family of God, by suggesting we have much of value to learn from Alain de Botton.


Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton (New York, NY: Pantheon Books; 2012) 312 pp. + index.