Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion
Alain de Botton
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, £18.99

“Religion," writes Alain de Botton, "is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognising our paltriness." It is a thought reminiscent of Blaise Pascal. One of the creators of modern probability theory, the 17th-century thinker invented an early calculating machine, the Pascaline, along with a version of the syringe and a hydraulic press. He made major contributions to geometry and helped shape the future development of mathematics. He also designed the first urban mass transit system.

Pascal was one of the founders of the modern world. Yet the author of the Pensées - an apology for Christianity begun after his conversion to Catholicism - was also convinced of the paltriness of the human mind. By any standards a scientific genius and one of the most intelligent human beings that may ever have lived, Pascal never supposed that humankind's problems could be solved if only people were smarter.

The paradox of an immensely powerful mind mistrusting the intellect is not new. Pascal needed intellectual humility because he had so many reasons to be proud of his intelligence. It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali - to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions - lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton. His spirited and refreshingly humane book aims to show that religion serves needs that an entirely secular life cannot satisfy. He will not persuade those for whom atheism is a militant creed. Such people are best left with their certainties, however childish.

De Botton's readership will come from a different constituency - those who do not belong to any religion but who are open to the possibility that religion may be the only effective vehicle for values they cherish. This may be a larger group than is commonly realised. Rarely mentioned in the debates of recent years is that atheism has been linked with all kinds of positions in ethics, politics and philosophy. More particularly, there is no necessary connection - either as a matter of logic or in the longer history of atheist thinking - between atheism and the rejection of religion.

Atheist thinkers have rejected and at times supported religion for many different reasons. The 19th-century anarchist Max Stirner rejected religion as a fetter on individual self-assertion. Bakunin, Marx and Lenin rejected it because it obstructed socialist solidarity, while Nietzsche hated religion (specifically, Christianity) because he believed that it had led to ideologies of solidarity such as socialism. Auguste Comte, an atheist and virulent anti-liberal, attempted to create a new church of humanity based on science.

In contrast, the French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill - not exactly an atheist but not far off - tried to fuse Comte's new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little.

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion - communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.

Today's atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.

De Botton has done us a service by showing why atheists should be friendly to religion. Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don't believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous.

The fixation on belief is most prominent in western Christianity, where it results mainly from the distorting influence of Greek philosophy. Continuing this obsession, modern atheists have created an evangelical cult of unbelief. Yet the core of most of the world's religions has always been holding to a way of life rather than subscribing to a list of doctrines. In Eastern Orthodoxy and some currents of Hinduism and Buddhism, there are highly developed traditions that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all. Though not often recognised, there are parallels between this sort of negative theology and a rigorous version of atheism.

Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism. While not compatible with any kind of literalism, atheism of this strict kind is consistent with many varieties of religious practice. The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.

Unfortunately, de Botton falls into this confusion when he endorses Comte's scheme for a humanist church. "Regrettably," he writes, "Comte's unusual, complex, sometimes deranged but always thought-provoking project was derailed by practical obstacles." It is true that in accepting the need for religion Comte was more reasonable than the current breed of atheists. But it is one thing to point out why atheists should be friendly to religion and another to propose that a new religion should be invented for atheists.

The church of humanity is a prototypical modern example of atheism turned into a cult of collective self-worship. If this ersatz faith came to nothing, it was not because of practical difficulties. Religions are human creations. When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs - especially the need for self-transcendence. That is why we can be sure the world's traditional religions will be alive and well when evangelical atheism is dead and long forgotten.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His latest book is "The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (Penguin, £9.99)