Whether you're religious, an atheist, or somewhere in between, the odds are that you live a broadly secular life. None of the rhythms and structures of your modern life -- from your daily routines to your workplace to your vacations -- bear the imprint of the religious world. In his new book, Religion for Atheists, the writer Alain de Botton argues that this is a big mistake. Religions, he thinks, contain a lot of practical wisdom, and religious institutions were more insightful and realistic about people than their secular replacements have been. "Even if religion isn't true," he asks, "can't we enjoy the best bits?"
Once you set aside the question of whether any given religion is true or not -- "one of the most boring and unproductive questions you can ask" -- you're free to notice how useful they are. "The error of modern atheism," de Botton writes, "has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed."
Over thousands of years, religious traditions have figured out what people are really like -- what their real capacities are, and what they really care about. Take learning. At a modern university, students race through a small library of books while assimilating torrents of new information from lectures. After four years of madness, learning simply ends. But religious institutions, de Botton argues, have long known that learning doesn't really work that way; they recognize "how easily we forget things." You don't go to four years of church, then stop going for the rest of your life. Instead, a religious tradition asks you to think about the same questions and ideas over and over throughout your life. A calendar might even be provided to structure your review. That's the kind of education you need if you're going to learn the things people really care about learning, like self-control, perspective, and ways of coping with the "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."
Examples of religion's ultimate realism about the human condition abound. Secular life gives us Facebook; religious life acknowledges our need for a truly broad community, and crams us into church pews where we're forced to make new friends. Secular life demands that we be tough-minded, independent adults; religious traditions know that even grownups require emotional comfort, and venerate motherly tenderness in figures like Mary, Isis, Venus, or Guan Yin. It's even true, de Botton argues, about vacations. Today's resorts pay lip service to the idea of spiritual renewal, droning on in their advertisements about "renewing" and "recharging." In fact, de Botton writes, they focus mainly on "the quality of their mattresses and toiletries." Religious retreats, meanwhile, are "more rounded in their attentions," and give us the tools to actually renew ourselves: exercise, meditation, and intellectual stimulation.
Ultimately, what most impresses de Botton about religion is its sheer effectiveness. Today's intellectuals and do-gooders write books and tend their LinkedIn profiles, but those are incredibly ineffective ways to motivate people. Religions "employed institutions, marshaling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, buildings, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments, and calendars." Today's secular institutions, like art museums and universities, aren't half as effective. The one exception might be the modern corporation: "It is a singularly regrettable feature of the modern world that while some of the most trivial of our requirements (for shampoo and moisturizers, for example, as well as pasta sauce and sunglasses) are met by superlatively managed brands, our essential needs are left in the disorganized and unpredictable care of lone actors" -- novelists, artists, and others who must devote in isolation to "the care of souls."
How much of the religious world can be adapted for the secular one? De Botton has some intriguing proposals, like secular monasteries, art museums organized along spiritual themes, or an "agape restaurant," in which patrons are seated next to strangers and given a script to follow which directs them right to the most personal questions ("Whom can you not forgive?"). In London, he runs his own academy, the School of Life, which is a little like a secular church.
I have my doubts: The spirituality and beauty of religions seem to me to depend, in the end, on real belief. It's one thing go to a Zen retreat and meditate with a real Buddhist monk; it's another to meditate with a spiritually inclined resort employee. But de Botton's general message to atheists is worth hearing: There's much that's "beautiful, touching and wise" to rescue "from all that no longer seems true."
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.