Most humanists and other non-theists share a world view in most respects. Overblown as it is, the main bone of contention in this community seems to be about how much respect – if any – should be shown for religion’s role in history and society.
Alain de Botton is one of those atheists who holds religious culture in high regard. He has just written a book called Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion in which he suggests that non-believers have most of the same basic human needs as believers and should look to religion’s inventions for models of how to meet those needs. It is a fascinating proposition and one to which I obviously subscribe.
De Botton is not proposing that atheists become people of faith. Far from it. What he’s suggesting is that religion, which is a complete human fabrication, has figured out some good ways of creating community and addressing our emotional longings. He writes:
We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves – that is, the most mature and reasonable parts of us (seldom present in the midst of our crises and obsessions) – who want to lead the sort of life we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us. An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognizing ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.
The author’s critique of a harsh atheist rejection of religion is not based on whether atheists are right to cast off theology – he is an atheist after all – but in whether they are right to unsparingly write off the entire enterprise. For while atheists may have no use for religion to explain the workings of the universe, that doesn’t mean that atheists don’t have other requirements that religious practices were designed to meet:
At its most withering and intellectually pugnacious, atheism has attacked religion for blinding itself to its own motives, for being unwilling to acknowledge that it is, at base, nothing more than a glorified response to childhood longings which have been dressed up, recast in new forms and projected into the heavens. This charge may well be correct. The problem is that those who level it are themselves in a denial, a denial of the needs of childhood. In their zeal to attack believers whose frailties have led them to embrace the supernatural, atheists may neglect the frailty that is an inevitable feature of all our lives. They may label as childish particular needs which should really be honored as more generally human, for there is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a grown-up who does not regularly yearn to be comforted like a child.
Having established this argument, de Botton goes on to examine the roles – beyond the superficial worship or veneration of gods – that religions play in people’s lives. In each case he looks at how religion answered emotional needs with practices that, while ringed with superstition, also met practical requirements. By examining holidays, life cycle events, rituals, symbols and institutions, de Botton makes an excellent, if sometimes overstated case for atheists to steal from religion.
Along the way, de Botton also provides a scathing, and I would argue, unfair critique of the optimism of secularism. While it is certainly true that secularists are sometimes overly sanguine about the future, it’s not necessarily a weakness. Jewish culture, for example, has long promoted the idea that better days are coming. There is even a robust line of Jewish thought that places the so-called “world to come” right here on an earth transformed into a better place. And while that idea was framed with more than a dollop of supernatural magic, many Jews were moved to take matters into their own hands as they came to realize that redemption could come only through their efforts. This required at least some optimism.
Though he does not address it in his book, de Botton is fully aware of attempts by humanists to create institutions that are both “religious” and non-theistic. In an interview with New Scientist he addresses these efforts:
…[T]here have been attempts [to reinvent movements]. Part of what has gone wrong is that people have wanted to start new religions, or rival institutions. The point isn’t so much to start replacement movements as to integrate practices, attitudes and states of mind into secular life.
I’m not so sure about that. Many of his specific suggestions involve the radical transformation of a number of secular institutions in ways that come across more as science fiction than achievable reality. It seems to me that an evolution is more realistic than a revolution. But who knows for sure? If non-theistic, humanistic communities are going to really develop and flourish we will need dozens of experiments ranging from Humanistic Judaism to non-theistic Universalist Unitarianism to Ethical Culture to humanistic chaplaincies to who knows what.
For those of us involved in one or more of these efforts, de Botton’s book should serve as a valuable resource.