Don’t put down Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: it might float away. Save some time by starting at page 300 where he admits that others have been in this field before him. Save even more time by reading them instead.
Botton’s book follows Auguste Comte’s effort to construct a new religion which would take the best of the old, purge it of ‘gross superstitions’ and thus rescue humanity from the desert of modernity.
[Comte's] challenge to us lies in his suggestion that good ideas will not be able to flourish if they are always left inside books. In order to thrive, they must be supported by institutions of a kind that only religions have so far been able to build.
Religion for Atheists, 307.
De Botton sets out to update Comte by stripping religion of the god-stuff to expose some useful social practices. Yom Kippur, for instance, requires the devout Jew to reflect on his actions in the previous year and then make amends for wrongs to others. This is a good idea in itself, Botton thinks (and so do I) and does not require a commitment to Y*HV*H. It does, however, require a commitment to community and to the well-being of others and to one’s own moral health and it is of course the whole context of the religion and the religious community which encourages these commitments. The custom would not last long if only you went about apologising while others sat on their hands. Even this simple example cannot so easily be ripped from a body of belief and believers.
The problem here and throughout the book is the airy ease with which actual communities, actual people, actual experience are wished away. As Richard Rorty used to say, the goal is not the problem, we know where we want to be – for example, we want to live in a world free of war: the problem is to get there from here. I imagine Botton shrugging: cool – just – you know – putting it out there, getting the conversation going. That, in urbane Oxbridge prose, is what’s on offer: ‘bright ideas’.
In a section on ‘perspective’ (getting your troubles in) he discusses the book of Job.
Job is reminded of the scale of all that surpasses him and of the age, size and mystery of space. God’s whirlwind, and the sonorous, sublime words he speaks, excite a pleasing terror in his audience, a sense of how petty are man’s disasters in comparison with the ways of eternity, leaving Job, and the rest of us, perhaps – a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails.
This is not an interpretation: it simply restates the problem of the text, less adequately; it begs the question. The Book of Job is a relationship drama. Job’s is a crisis of faith in that relationship and God’s words are implacably unreasonable. Generations of commentators have wrestled with them. It is possible to be awed or enraged by the Book of Job, troubled or reassured, even provoked (as Jung was) into a complex reading, but it is not possible to read it as ‘perspective’ .
The British press, to my surprise, has been quite respectful. Not so David Brooks in the New York Times.