Reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is like watching a train-wreck of a sermon.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a remarkable combination of astute observation and analysis of how religion and ritual affect our relationships and us alongside such a bare-knuckled insistence on missing the point of it all. He freely acknowledges this, of course:
To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense… The premise of this book 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. (pp. 11-12)
Given his ruling out-of-court any possibility of the divine, he then goes on to carefully, intelligently, and articulately outline a series of worthwhile things religion has given to humanity. To a significant degree, de Botton sees the benefit of religion located in reminding us we are frail, broken, finite, and sinful: “Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness” (p. 200).
But it then starts to feel like a disaster of a sermon. I hope you haven’t sat through something like this, but you might have heard a talk where the exegesis of a passage and the theology have been excellent, but then the preacher botches the ending. The points of application, if even remotely achievable, are totally unworkable. So, for example, de Botton suggests that rather than reflecting on how immense God is and how limited we are, a secular society could meditate daily on the vast distance that comprises a single light year, or hook up feeds from extraplanetary telescopes to public billboard displays. Or he suggests a liturgy for a communal meal with strangers, during which diners would talk on points designed to reveal themselves to one another (“What do you regret? Whom can you not forgive?”).
If you remove the hope external to ourselves—a hope not found in one another but provided in Christ by God—you’re left with a set of activities that seem, well, pretty silly.
This May/June issue of The Briefing is devoted, in various ways, to examining that hope and its effects. Mark Baddeley looks at the scope of the attack on Christian hope by a different type of atheism to de Botton’s, the so-called ‘New Atheist’ movement. He goes about this in a unique way, as he examines not the content of the arguments but their character and their effect (note that this is an edited and condensed version of Mark’s posts on New Atheism here; the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version will be published here on June 11). In the face of what appears at times to be the utter reasonableness of sensible arguments put forward by New Atheists—or the more appealing, astute, and articulate de Botton—Martin Ayers examines the all-too-common experience of doubt, and how we can take courage and focus on Christ (coming on May 14). Alongside addressing our doubts, David Mears addresses our complacency by helping us to think about the fear of God, and discovers the hope and joy that (surprisingly) go along with it (May 28). There’s also stuff on the ministries of women (May 7), planting churches (May 21), training preachers (June 4), and reviews of Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design (May 17) and Tim Challies’ The Next Story (May 10). So stay tuned.
De Botton sees the hope we have in Christ, but doesn’t understand it, and makes the mistake of thinking the actions that flow from our hope have meaning without it. Let’s not make the same mistake.