Do atheists have anything to learn from religion?
Stripped of its supernatural elements, does religion have anything to offer atheists? What can nonbelievers borrow from the organizations, practices and rituals of believers without borrowing a belief in God?
According to Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, a lot.
In his new book, Religion For Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, he outlines an array of things he contends religions get right and that atheists can adopt to create a better, richer secular society.
"The starting point of all religions is that humans are weak and vulnerable and needing direction," de Botton said shortly after arriving in the U.S. from his home in England to promote the book. "But as I look at secular society, I see how we've been abandoned to make our own way through life and how challenging that is."
Religion, de Botton writes, has a lot to say about how to live and love, caring for others, handling suffering, dealing with death and all the other universal experiences that make us human.
And while he is not suggesting that atheists adopt a belief, he argues that atheists ignore religion's wisdom at their peril.
"The error of modern atheism," he writes, "has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed."
For example, to help build a sense of community, he suggests atheists borrow the idea of a weekly, communal meal found at the heart of the Catholic Mass. Atheists could make pilgrimages not to religious sites, but to places of renewal and meaning, such as a place of great natural beauty or silence or a secular retreat center.
The idea that has attracted the most attention is de Botton's suggestion that atheists build their own temples. He has garnered financial and ideological support for such a site in downtown London. Early architectural drawings show a tower representing the age of the Earth bisected by a thin gold line to mark the time humans have existed.
"It isn't about the worship of reason or atheism or the existence or nonexistence of God," de Botton said. "It is a space where ego is stilled and put into a wider context. It borrows [from religion] the concept that space is an integral part of getting you into the right frame of mind for something."
The book has received mixed reviews. Writing in The New York Times' Book Review, David Brooks praised some of de Botton's ideas like his suggestion that museums be organized on universal themes, such as compassion while calling others "silly," such as de Botton's call for universities to reorganize to include a "Department of Relationships" and a "Center for Self-Knowledge."
But the harshest criticism has come from within the atheist movement itself. In public and private, fellow atheists have accused de Botton of "betraying" atheism for suggesting religion has value. He was attacked in the British press by Richard Dawkins, best-selling author of The God Delusion, and in the blogosphere by P.Z. Myers, an American atheist and biologist.
"I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts," Myers wrote on his blog, Pharyngula. "You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy."
But de Botton said it is not the hard-liners he is trying to reach.
"I am talking to someone who finds themselves not in a position to believe, who has no intuitive sense of the presence of the divine," he said. "That said, they are relaxed about that, they don't hate religion, they know bad things have gone on about religion, but they don't need to go on about it at every turn. They like the arts, the ethics, the best moments of religion. They are selective."
Four proposals for atheists
In Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton proposes ways atheists can borrow some of the rituals, practices and other trappings of religion and adapt them to build a better secular society.
Here are four of de Botton's proposals:
"As religions have always known, a beautiful building is an indispensable part of getting your message across. Books alone won't do it. De Botton argues that you definitely don't need a god or gods to justify a temple. You can build a temple to anything that's positive and good. That could mean: a temple to love, friendship, perspective, calm, generosity."
"Going to see a priest used to be the old way of dealing with your problems. You'd go to the priest with your worries about death, your troubles at work, with money and with family.
"However, with the decline in religious belief has come an end to the role of the priest for many people. What has sometimes stepped in to fill the gap is psychotherapy. But, unfortunately, therapy is currently for the few and for the brave.
"That's because therapy tends to take place in obscure and forbidding locations and lacks proper branding and high-street appeal. Therefore, it continues to be viewed as arcane and frightening by many.
"De Botton thinks that the secular world should learn from religions and properly replace the priests of old. Therefore, he's putting forward a proposal for an international chain of high-street psychotherapists, which would place therapy where it needs to be, right at the heart of our everyday lives, catering to a basic need not so different to our need for an aspirin or a bunch of flowers."
"The museum shouldn't be a neutral space for laying out the artworks of the past like a giant library or catalog. It should be a place to convert you to something.
"Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose to make us good and wise and kind and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? What if they gave up on the neutral, bland captions they tend to use, and put beneath each picture a really directive set of commands, telling us, for example, 'Look at this image and remember to be patient' or 'Use this sculpture to meditate on what you too could do to bring about a fairer world?' "
"The tradition of religious retreats reveals a need for a new kind of establishment, a secular hotel for the soul, devoted to satisfying with intelligence and artistry the psychological as well as physical needs of its clientele. Such a hotel would humbly study the extraordinarily structured ways in which Buddhism approaches the topic of relaxation, as well as casting an eye across other faiths and psychological schools in order to arrive at programs for the care of our troubled minds that would extend beyond the lamentable solutions currently on offer."
Source: Religion for Atheists website (http://www.religionforatheists.com)