Religion, what is it good for? (More than nothing)

Religion for Athiests, Alain de Botton

Way back when my niece was being baptised, the minister kindly offered to baptise my son as well, even though we were not members of his church. I politely declined due to my lack of religious beliefs (to say the least), and he and I went on to have the beginnings of a very intriguing conversation about the unfortunate loss of community that attending a local church used to provide.

A friend’s recent tragedy got me thinking about how the non-religious can find ways to support and comfort our friends as they search for higher meaning in tragic events, and be open to the possibility of spiritual explanations for those things that are unknowable in both religious and secular beliefs.

Alain de Botton doesn’t tackle the problem of finding common ground between religious and secular beliefs in the search for what happens after death. Instead, he talks about what society stands to lose as we become more secular, and how we might incorporate religious ways of thinking and living as a means to make our lives more considerate, empathetic and hopeful.

He first talks about community, which immediately won me over. This has always seemed to me to be our greatest loss as the community church has faded away. Spending time with your neighbours as part of some kind of regular ritual makes it awfully hard to be a dick and pick a fight over a tree or fence line, or to hold a grudge the next time you have to hang out with them at the weekly social.

This leads to kindness, which in religion is arguably brought about through repetition and role models promoting forgiveness, patience and charity. I don’t believe there is an over-abundance of these traits in today’s world, although attempts are made through initiatives like the “Random Acts of Kindness”. The trouble is that we need to be more patient and forgiving people we know through specific and non-random kindnesses, and the question is how do we elevate these characteristics in a world that idolizes the wealthy and famous over the thoughtful and kind?

De Botton has several other interesting perspectives. In the areas of Education and Art, he promotes a concept of shifting the focus of curriculums and exhibits from pillars (“math”, “humanities”, “18th century masters”) to horizontal abstractions around life-needs such as “forgiveness”, “death”, “love” and so on. I actually love this idea! Imagine what an art gallery would be like if you could learn how artists across time dealt with depression, or, in another gallery, joy?

The book continues with thought-provoking insights around tenderness and the need for comfort, perspective and the relief of accepting our insignificance, and pessimism which brings expectations more in line with reality. (He does drift up against the adage that if you expect the worst you are never disappointed, and on this point I disagree because, hey! What kind of life is that? A little optimism seems like an okay thing to me.)

Am I more religious for having read this book? No. Am I less dismissive of the potential benefits of religious rituals? Yes. Do I have a new way of thinking about what happens after death? Unfortunately no, but I’m still looking.

Rating: Buy it. There’s lots here worth revisiting.

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2 Responses to Religion, what is it good for? (More than nothing)

  1. Chrystal says:

    Great review.

    Your point about the loss of community because churches are diminishing is interesting and very sad to me. One of the hallmarks of a community is inclusiveness; church congregations (for example) had a responsibility to welcome the new members (sometimes refugees) and to accommodate those who were different (sometimes families who had someone with a severe disability)and also take care of those who were berieved or had called on hard times. I saw all of that growing up in a church environment.

    What we have now are tribes based on social class, affluence or political interests. There is no need to include anyone new, anyone different or anyone who doesn’t quite fit for whatever reason. Some of these tribes have a very strong emphasis on conformity. If you don’t fit in, you’re out. I don’t know how we are going to move past that as a culture.