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What Atheism Can Learn from Religion

Notice: This is an alert, not a review. Repeat: This is an alert, not a review.
In our sights this week – they would be hard to miss – are notices of Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.”

The ethic of reviewers demands that they will at least have read the book they are critiquing, and I’ve not read or seen more of it than the already numerous articles about it with excerpts or quotes.

A review on that basis? Unfair. An alert about the book? Fair.

In the two-page article by de Botton in the weekend Wall Street Journal, we read a perceptive highlighting of what’s good about religion and religions. Fair.

His analysis of what religion(s) can do when at its (their?) best is likely to get less attention than his projection of what the Journal headlines as “Religion for Everyone.”

Communicators who must score by coming up with the novel will find the notion of “Religion for Atheists” a concept hard to pass up, sure to attract notice and demanding response.

This e-column is itself a sample thereof. Rather than gorge on the promise of this new religion or sneer at its announcement, we might serve the cause by examining the prospect of de Botton’s vision and prescription.

His main examples of usable functions to be retrieved, replicated, advanced and celebrated from the old dying religions – his main points draw on Catholicism – have to do with rituals, eating together as in the Mass, forming community and the like.

He pictures value in what he would “build” and advertise as the Agape Restaurant, modeled after the sacramental love-feast (=agape) practiced by early Christians and remodeled both in the Mass of communal meals of most believing communities.

Now for the look ahead: I’d buy stock in the media that will debate the proposal. But if history is any guide, stock in any sort of “Religion for Everyone” is bearish. “It’s been done!” is a world-weary sigh that we historians are expected to sigh.

Of more potential value for faith, non-faith, religion, post-religion and communities (from local to global) is examining the question of why a “Religion for Everyone” or “A Religion of Atheism” or “The Religion of Humanity” as advanced by major figures like John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte in early-modern centuries failed so dismally if not disastrously.

It may be because they were proposed by Mills and Comte and not voiced by Muhammad, Moses and the others.

Without suggesting that this is an all-purpose reason, let me plug my favorite analysis, George Santayana’s words in “Reason in Religion.” A religion for everyone? He writes:

“Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular. … Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life.”

Its vistas and mysteries propound “another world to live in,” and “another world to live in … is what we mean by having a religion.”

De Botton’s work is a laudable critique of what goes wrong in the old religions, which he seems to envy and about which he is nostalgic.

“The religions” could take lessons from some of what he proposes. But it does not transcend the merely secular world and does not appear to offer “another world to live in.”

We’ll watch.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.