Religion for Atheists

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Ben Casnocha shares some highlights from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

For instance, much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which pre-date the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity.

One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.

All buildings give their owners opportunities to recondition visitors’ expectations and to lay down rules of conduct specific to them. The art gallery legitimates the practice of peering silently at a canvas, the nightclub of swaying one’s hands to a musical score. And a church, with its massive timber doors and 300 stone angels carved around its porch, gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane. We are promised that here (in the words of the Mass’s initial greeting) ‘the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ belong to all who have assembled. The Church lends its enormous prestige, accrued through age, learning and architectural grandeur, to our shy desire to open ourselves to someone new.


  1. David Foster says:

    Arthur Koestler, himself by no means a conventionally religious person, wrote about the social impact of declining religiousness in his novel of ideas The Age of Longing. I reviewed it at length here.

  2. Tatyana says:

    The religiously inclined often overestimate the value of community, communal spirit and similar ties of repression. The divide is not between atheists and believers; it’s between individualists and collectivists.

  3. Zac says:

    Tatyana, I agree and disagree. First, you are right that the divide is not just between atheists and believers (nor just between believers in A religion and believers in B-Z religions). But the divide is between the community we want, the community we can’t have, and the community we’re afraid of. The text says church is a place where we can talk to our neighbor openly; we can do that everywhere, but our upbringing teaches us not to. Also, I don’t think you can overvalue community in the sense that it encompasses cooperation and coexistence (no connotations intended behind “coexistence”).

  4. Tatyana says:

    no, I didn’t said that at all.
    no “just”, and no “divide between communities”.

    I meant what I said, and said what I mean.

    cooperation and coexistence are very small and often temporary functions where an individualist would want the collectives of various stripes to stop – but they don’t.

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