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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

"Religion for atheists" by Alain de Botton

This wonderful book ends with the statement that: “The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” (10.iii.3) It proposes that the secular world learns how religions pass on their message, which is, after all, a message intended to support the fragile human psyche through its many times of troubles, in order to enable such support without the use of the supernatural. He asserts that religions are fundamentally false (“No one intent on starting a new religion from scratch in the modern era would dream of proposing anything as hoary and improbable as the rituals and precepts bequeathed to us by our ancestors.”; 10.ii.1), that they were invented, but he then suggests that: “We invented religions to serve two central needs ... first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and too our decay and demise.” (1.2) Given that these needs still exist, we need to develop secular systems which will promote social harmony and support vulnerable individuals without the mumbo-jumbo.

Then, in eloquent writing which sometimes reaches the heights of lyrical beauty, he proposes how this can be done.
One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity.” (2.i.1) He recognises that this is partly due to overcrowding: “Whereas the Bedouin whose tent surveys a hundred kilometres of desolate sand has the psychological wherewithal to offer each stranger a warm welcome, his urban contemporaries, though at heart no less well meaning or generous, must - in order to preserve a modicum of inner serenity - give no sign of even noticing the millions of humans eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating and dying only centimetres away from them all sides.” (2.i.2)  But churches are places where strangers from all walks of life meet. Often they are beautiful places. People are instructed to move together: when to kneel, when to stand or sit, when to sing together, when to listen. Importantly, the weakest are welcomed as well as the strongest. And he points out that the Christian mass began as a meal: “Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and off benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However the proximity required by a meal ... disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.” (2.i.6) 

AdB suggests that we institutionalize apologies, as with the Jewish Day of Atonement or the Catholic Confession. He suggests that we are all nasty in some ways to other people and this causes two lots of suffering:
  • As victims of hurt, we frequently don't bring up what ails us, because so many wounds look absurd in the light of day. It appals our reason to face up to how much we suffer from the missing invitation or the unanswered letter, how many hours of torment we've given to the unkind remark.” (2.ii.2)
  • If we have offended we may “feel intolerably guilty” so that we “run away from our victims and act with strange rudeness towards them” so making them suffer twice. (2.ii.2)
One problem is that we don't like being told we are naughty by someone else. It provokes the 'who do you think you are' response and one of the flaws of religions is that often the priest is promoted as Mr Perfect Pants. “Among religions’ more unpalatable features is the tendency of their clergies to speak to people as if they, and they alone, were in possession of maturity and moral authority.” (3.i.7) AdB argues that the concept of Original Sin is that we are all flawed. “The doctrine of original sin encourages us to inch towards moral improvement by understanding the faults we despise in ourselves are inevitable features of the species. We can therefore admit to them candidly and attempt to rectify them in the light of day. The doctrine knows that shame is not a helpful emotion for us to be weighed down with as we work towards having a little less to be ashamed about.”. (3.i.7)

He then proposes that in order to get the message across we need to institutionalize the secular church. He shows how institutions have vastly more wealth, and power, and influence than even the greatest individual thinker. He contrasts the cottage industry of wellness gurus with the brand recognition of the church. He suggests we advertise our secular beliefs by beautiful paintings, for example, and by beautiful architecture. (I take issue with his idea that beauty somehow equates with goodness: there is sufficient cult today of beautiful people and the downside of beauty = goodness is to suggest that the ugly should be shunned; besides, his two pictures contrasting a protestant chapel with a Roman Catholic chapel are presumably intended to suggested that the lush ornamentation of the RC ceiling is preferable whereas I personally prefer the elegance of the protestant building; beauty is even more individual perhaps than ethics.)

He considers the universities should have the duty to teach courses in eg How to have a successful marriage, and How to Die, and that these courses should be illustrated with extracts from great literature but he sees that the present universities have missed their way by considering literature as texts to be studied rather than improving moral works: “We are by no means lacking in material which we might call into service to replace the holy texts; we are simply treating that material in the wrong way. We are unwilling to consider secular culture ... as a source of guidance.” (4.i.4) “The redesigned universities of the future would draw upon the same rich catalogue of culture treated by their traditional counterparts ... but they would teach this material with a view to illuminating students lives ... Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would that be assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage ... Epicurus and Seneca would appear in a syllabus for a course about dying.” (4.i.7)

He also suggests that universities, by relying on a single method of transmission, the (often boring) lecture, have missed the goal. 
  • Christianity pictures the mind as a sluggish and fickle organ ... the central issue for education is not so much how to counteract ignorance as how we can combat our reluctance to act upon ideas which we have already fully understood at a theoretical level. It follows the Greek sophists in insisting that all lessons should appeal to both reason (logos) and emotion (pathos)” (4.ii.1) 
  • Ever since Plato attacked the Greek sophists for being more concerned with speaking well than thinking honestly, Western intellectuals have been intransigently suspicious of eloquence.” (4.ii.2)
  • Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.” (4.ii.3)
Finally he proposes that we lack perspective, being insufficiently pessimistic about our powerlessness in the face of the cosmos. This is interesting given that others suggest that it was the Coperbnican revolution that displaced mankind and the earth from its position of centrality in the Universe. But de Botton states:
  •  “Our secular world ... surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history” (7.2)
  • Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.” (7.3) 

Other important ideas
  • In the past, we got to know others because we have no option but to ask them for help” because there were no social safety nets. “We are from a purely financial point of view greatly more generous than our ancestors ever were, surrendering up to half of that income for the common good” but this is through taxation which tends to leave us resentful imagining that “our money is being used to support unnecessary bureaucracies” rather than considering “those less fortunate members of the policy for whom our taxes also buy clean sheets, soup, shelter or a daily dose of insulin.” (2.i.2)
  • We get our ideas of strangers from the media so we think “that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers or paedophiles” although when disasters strike and we are actually vulnerable “we tend to marvel that our fellow citizens have shown surprisingly little interest in slicing us in half or molesting our children and may even be surprisingly good-natured and ready to help.” (2.i.2)
  • The flaws whose exposure we so dread, the indiscretions we know we would be mocked for, the secrets that keep our conversations with our so-called friends superficial and inert - all of these emerge as simply part of the human condition.” (2.i.3)
  • It is hard to attend most wedding parties without realising that these celebrations are at some level also marking a sorrow, the entombment of sexual liberty and individual curiosity for the sake of children and social stability, with compensation from the community being delivered through gifts and speeches.” (2.iii.3)
  • Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together.” 
  • Freedom has become our supreme political virtue ...the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members.” (3.i.1)
  • Heady romantic longings are fragile materials with which to construct a relationship. We grow thoughtless and mendacious towards each other. We surprise ourselves with our rudeness. We become deceitful and vindictive.” (3.i.5)
  • It seems clear that the origins of religious ethics lay in the pragmatic need of the earliest communities to control their members’ tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were then projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms ... But if we can now own up to spiritualising our ethical laws, we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. ... We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves ... who want to live the sort of life which we want imagine supernatural beings demanded of us.” (3.i.6)
  • We will never discover cast-iron rules of good conduct which will answer every question that might arise about how human beings can live peacefully and well together.” (3.1.8)
  • We would be advised to focus our attention on relatively small scale, undramatic kinds of misconduct. ... Rudeness and emotional humiliation maybe just as corrosive to a well-functioning society as robbery and murder.” (3.1.8)
  • Consider ... how belatedly and how bluntly the modern state enters into our lives ... It intervenes when it is already far too late, after we have picked up the gun.” (3.i.8)
  • Literature, previously dismissed as being worthy of study only by adolescent girls and convalescents, was recognised as a serious subject ... The newfound prestige of novels and poems was based on the realization that these forms, much like the Gospels, could deliver complex moral messages embedded within emotionally charged narratives, and therefore prompt affective identification and self-examination.” (4.i.4)
  • There is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a grown-up who does not regularly yearn to be comforted like a child.” (5.3)
  • If there is a problem with Christianity’s approach, it is that ... the need for comfort has come to be overly identified with a need for Mary herself, instead of being seen for what it really is: an eternal appetite which began long before the Gospels, originating at the very moment when the first child was picked up by his or her mother and soothed amid the darkness and cold of the first underground cave.” (5.4)
  • The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings ... are at risk of taking psychological centre stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythms of the earth, deny death and shy away from valuing and honouring all that slips through their grasp, until at last they must collide catastrophically with the sharp edges of reality.” (7.2)
  • Tourists making their way around some of the world's great museums ... appear to want to be transformed by art, but the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike. They resemble the disappointed participants in a failed seance.” (8.2)
  • Art ...is a medium to remind us about what matters. It exists to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls.” (8.3)
  • The unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister than our habit of looking at them in the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, which blind us to the fact that they are really, despite a thousand differences, just altered versions of ourselves: fellow fragile, uncertain, flawed beings likewise craving love and in urgent need of forgiveness.” (8.5)
  • If our bodies were immune to pain or decay, we would be monsters.” (8.5)
  • There are places which by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us.” (9.3)
  • Romanticism has taught us to mock the ponderousness and strictures of institutions, their tendencies to corruption and the tolerance of mediocrity. The ideal of the intellectual has been that of a free spirit living beyond the confines of any system, disdainful of money, and cut off from practical affairs.” (10.i.1)
  • Why should only phones and shampoos benefit from coherent retail identities?” (10.i.3)
  • Because we are embodied creatures - sensory animals as well as rational beings - we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels ... in what we wear, eat, sing, decorate our houses with and bathe in.” (10.i.4)

An incredibly thought-provoking (and timely) book. Beautifully written, both easy to read and lyrical, and with many illustrations who, together with their captions, add a considerable amount to the text,

Alain de Botton has also written How Proust can change your life

August 2019; 312

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