11 July 2019

Alain de Botton's 'Religion for Atheists'

Alain de Botton: writer, philosopher, founder of The School of Life; a man with an intellectual yet totally personable approach to self-help. His work addresses fundamental questions of how we're to live more meaningful, fulfilling lives. I stumbled upon one of his TED talks a number of years ago, and have always resonated with his ideas, many of which set me on a path of deeper inquiry.

One such idea is what he calls "Atheism 2.0": an approach to religion that goes beyond the concept of faith, making the case that, believer or non believer, there are many aspects of religion you and I can and should engage with - or "steal", as he puts it - to enrich our lives. While I don't identify as an atheist, nor do I wish to paraphrase his philosophy on the subject in its entirety (or take it too literally), I think the basic premise is really interesting, and I'd like to pick out some of the points that I find most useful.

“I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content. [...] I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths.” 

De Botton rightly argues that most of us face a choice. Either we believe, "sign up to all the doctrines", and then get access to the various ritualistic and communal aspects that come with the faith. Alternatively - and I'd say most of my peers fall into this category - we don't believe in the deity nor the doctrines, and as a result we forgo all of the "nice bits", missing out on much-needed moral guidance and spiritual connection.

What if we - those who sit in the second category, "non-believers" - could acknowledge what religions do best, beyond the dogma, and apply some of its most valuable notions to our lives?


Religions assume that we humans are fundamentally flawed and in need of guidance. You might say this is a dangerous conclusion, used to manipulate and exploit - which is probably true - but that's the subject of another article. What we can admit is that despite its pitfalls, religion does provide a deep well of wisdom and consolation at any stage in life: be it at birth, in love, after loss, in death. And that ultimately, religion's educative purpose is to encourage us to live better lives; to be kinder and more moral.

In the secular world, where do we look for moral guidance? OK, we've got friends, family, and for some of us, art and culture - but there is no place we can go when we're seeking guidance (save the psychologist), nor is there a structured and deliberate anthology of life's great lessons; a kind of secular bible. At school, for instance, we might study great works of art or literature, but the idea of art as therapy - of art providing solace in difficult times - seems to be overlooked.

I don't think Alain de Botton is suggesting that things are going terribly in secular society. The majority of people I know are very nice, and mostly know the difference between good and bad. But that probably isn't enough to navigate a world as complex as ours. Mental illness is rife. And the questions we face, whether personal or political, require much deeper inquiry.

Why do we wait till crisis hits before pursuing psychological and spiritual growth? Religion invites us to embrace, humbly, the understanding that we could all do with some help; that we don't know it all; that there are valuable, even sacred, lessons to be learnt from our ancestors.


Religions motivate this deeper inquiry by marking our calendars with events that invite reflection, celebration, and remembrance, usually involving our local communities. These rituals give us the space to process emotion, consider the passing of time, and devote energy and attention to something outside ourselves and our daily activities.

By and large, secular society has done away with ritual. We gather around the table at Christmas, but largely we've lost the real intention behind it: the sense of reflection, gratitude, and rebirth. So too, we've lost the potentially transformative and remedial qualities of this event. It's basically a missed opportunity.

“If you’re a Zen Buddhist, you’ve got an appointment with the moon. That appointment comes in the middle of September [...] where you’ll be asked out of your house, and made to stand on specially made canonical platforms, and you’ll sing some songs, and recite poetry in honour of the moon. And you’ll remember the fragility of life, the importance of friendship, and the brevity of life on Earth, all the while eating some rice cakes. So, it’s a charming ritual, a charming ceremony, designed to put a place in the diary for psychologically important ideas.”

There's no reason we can't or shouldn't bring ritual back into our lives without necessarily subscribing to a particular story or faith. Interpreting Alain de Botton here, I think it's about intention: whether we decide to take part in specific religious festivals, or just infuse our lives with our own rituals, it's the intention of growth or transformation - of taking the time to reflect upon something bigger - that counts. Rituals can be personal (a daily or weekly moment of meditation, for instance) but they seem to take on a special significance when, like in many religious practices, they involve a wider community.


Anthropologists and historians have long discussed the importance of community, and everyone I know has experienced this first hand in some way. Sports teams, drawing classes, music groups or just friends - the value of sharing a safe space with other people is indisputable.

The difference with religion is that the community exists beyond the realm of common interests - in theory, it brings together people of different ages, sexes and walks of life. It invites debate and collaboration. What if we applied this idea to our own lives, investing more energy into our local communities; bringing people together regardless of faith?


Years ago, I might have renounced religion and all its practices. If I look at my life now, I can observe that the aspects of religious practice I've discussed - the search for morality and ethics, ritual, and community - are all huge parts of my identity. They quite literally make me who I am, informing my choices big and small. I think this is true, in some way, for most people, whether they realise it or not. Bringing intention, inquiry, and contemplative practices back into our lives is not only beneficial, but also - in this hyper stimulated, hyper digitalised, high-speed world - absolutely essential.


Alain de Botton - Religion for Atheists (book)
A talk summarising his ideas (I used this as the basis for this article)

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