Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

3.8 7
by Alain de Botton

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What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false—but that it still has some very important things to

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What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false—but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world.
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it—because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, de Botton (a non-believer himself) proposes that we look to religion for insights into how to, among other concerns, build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world.
For too long non-believers have faced a stark choice between either swallowing some peculiar doctrines or doing away with a range of consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas. At last, in Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton has fashioned a far more interesting and truly helpful alternative.

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Editorial Reviews

Heller McAlpin
…in what is sure to be his most controversial book…de Botton turns his attention to aspects of religion he considers worth saving. Employing his usual mix of (mostly) cogent, highly personal discourse and quirky, often hilarious photographs, he tries to make a case for not throwing out the baby with the baptismal water…Readers on both ends of the religious spectrum are liable to be kept awake fulminating at Religion for Atheists, though furious engagement with his ideas may well be de Botton's intention.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this highly original and thought-provoking book, philosopher and atheist de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life) turns his critical eye to what religion does well and how nonbelievers might borrow from it to improve their own lives, institutions, and practices—without believing in God. For example, de Botton praises religion for satisfying the universal needs for community, comfort, and kindness and for its recognition that all people are imperfect and in need of help and healing. Some of what he suggests seems unattainable: de Botton calls for colleges and universities to shift from preparing students for careers to training them in “the art of living,” something he says religion does well. But other suggestions are more exciting for their plausibility—would not a Day of Atonement, drawn from Judaism, benefit all relationships? De Botton will no doubt annoy militant atheists who believe religion not only has no use but is essentially evil, but his well-reasoned arguments should appeal to the more open-minded nonbeliever. And de Botton is a lively, engaging writer. Agent: Nicole Aragi. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Religion for Atheists
“Highly original and thought-provoking book..... de Botton is a lively, engaging writer."—Publishers Weekly starred review  
“Quirky, often hilarious …Focusing on just three major faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism — [de Botton] makes a convincing case for their ability to create both a sense of community and education that addresses morality and our emotional life.” –Washington Post 
“One has to appreciate his pluck as much as his lucid, enjoyable arguments, and this book, like his previous titles, is a serious but intellectually wild ride. If anyone can ‘rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true,’ it’s de Botton.” –Miami Herald 

 “[De Botton] demonstrates his usual urbane, intelligent, and witty prose, always entertaining and worth reading…this book will advance amicable discussion among both believers and disbelievers.”
—Library Journal

“His approach, entertaining and enlightening, provides the thoughtful reader with endless enjoyment and an insight into de Botton's beliefs as well as his generous appraisal of the beliefs of others…brings insight and understanding to how religion may enhance the lives of nonbelievers.” –Shelf Awareness

“In earnest and lyrical prose, de Botton illuminates the practical functions of religion in a secular context…compelling.” –Kansas City Star

“A new book by Alain de Botton is always a treat…De Botton is literate, articulate, knowledgeable, funny and idiosyncratic.” –

“[De Botton] is a master of the well-heeled, chatty and above all reasonable tone…Religion for Atheists is provocative and well-intentioned.” –NPR 
“A wonderfully dangerous and subversive book.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“De Botton writes at his best when he confronts our abiding human frailty…I can't help but wholeheartedly recommend de Botton's new book. It provokes thought…what continuously separates de Botton apart is his genuine attempt to alleviate loneliness and sadness in a harsh world. If only all writers wrote with such unabashedly kind intentions.” –Huffington Post
“Much of the book is common-sensical and insightful, as de Botton rescues ‘what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that seems no longer true’…the wealth of knowledge and felicity of phrasing that de Botton brings to his task make for a stimulating read…Written with de Botton's customary humor, grace and melancholy, Religion for Atheists may not always convince. But it always engages.” –Seattle Times
“Provocative and thoughtful …Particularly noteworthy are de Botton's insights on what education and the arts can borrow from the formats and paradigms of religious delivery.” –Atlantic 
“Compelling…beautifully and wittily illustrated.” –Los Angeles Times

Praise for The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
“Exquisitely written . . . A perceptive philosophical meditation on work, with its extraordinary claim to provide, along with love, the principal source of meaning in our lives.”
—The Boston Globe
“The workplace as subject matter brings out the best in de Botton’s writing . . . His wit and his powers of ironic observation are on display throughout [this] stylish and original book.”
—The Sunday Times (London)
“Like a combination of Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and pop philosopher Thomas Moore, de Botton’s dense, pensive prose expresses a palpable preoccupation with finding better ways of living in our bewilderingly estranged age.”

Praise for The Architecture of Happiness
“A perceptive, thoughtful, original and richly illustrated exercise in the dramatic personification of buildings of all sorts.”
—The New York Review of Books
“With originality, verve and wit, de Botton explains how we find reflections of our own values in the edifices we make . . . Altogether satisfying.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

Library Journal
Atheism is a form of faith. The convinced atheist believes that there is no god and no supernatural, and that religion is nothing but superstitious bunk. The atheist is therefore unlikely to see that there is a lot that is useful and good in religion. De Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life), a convinced atheist but a Jew by birth, shows how much of religion is indeed very good and worth keeping, even in a society tending (at least in Europe) toward atheism. There is strong community, for instance, and high art, especially in architecture, painting, sculpture, and music. De Botton discusses these and many other benefits, while rejecting religious doctrine and ritual. He demonstrates his usual urbane, intelligent, and witty prose, always entertaining and worth reading. VERDICT While the educated atheist may have noticed some of the benefits of religion, many of those that de Botton proposes are not obvious. Religious believers may take some of this for granted, but they will also find enlightenment in de Botton's discussions, even if some may think his atheist convictions somewhat smug. Both useful and entertaining, this book will advance amicable discussion among both believers and disbelievers. [See Prepub Alert, 9/11/11.]—James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA
Kirkus Reviews
De Botton (A Week at the Airport, 2010, etc.) suggests ways a secular society can provide the benefits and comfort its citizens once derived from faith. The author's central argument is credible: Religions "serve two central needs…which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill"--the need for community and the need for consolation in the face of life's ills and evils. The devil is in the details, as de Botton cherry-picks isolated rituals from Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism and proposes some not-very-persuasive modern equivalents (e.g., an Agape Restaurant designed to be "a secular descendant of the Eucharist" and a museum that offers spiritual guidance by organizing its artworks into subsets such as the Gallery of Self-knowledge and the Gallery of Compassion). Yes, the Jewish Day of Atonement provides an orderly format for acknowledging that we all injure others and all must learn to forgive. The idea that we can replace this timeworn practice with a billboard ad promoting Forgiveness in lieu of a sneaker brand is insulting to believers and atheists alike. When the author tosses off such comments as, "[o]ur artistic scene might benefit from greater collaborations between thinkers and makers of images, a marriage of best ideas with their highest expression," he seems to have forgotten about the horrors wrought in service to that principle by Stalin and Hitler, to name only two political leaders who fancied they knew best what artists should say. The author displays a similar historical insouciance when he implies there has been no transcendent, spiritually nourishing architecture since the cathedrals, ignoring several centuries of train stations, libraries and government buildings expressing a monumental faith in civic culture that may languish today but was once a real force in public life. Unlike The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and The Architecture of Happiness, this installment in the author's oeuvre is shallow and glib.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.34(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.68(d)

Meet the Author

Alain de Botton is the author of essays on themes ranging from love and travel to architecture and philosophy. His best-selling books include How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness. He lives in London, where he is the founder and chairman of The School of Life ( and the creative director of Living Architecture (

Read an Excerpt

from Part One: Wisdom without Doctrine
The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.
To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense. This is a book for people who are unable to believe in miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrubbery, and have no deep interest in the exploits of unusual men and women like the thirteenth-century saint Agnes of Montepulciano, who was said to be able to levitate two feet off the ground while praying and to bring children back from the dead – and who, at the end of her life (supposedly), ascended to heaven from southern Tuscany on the back of an angel.
Attempting to prove the non-existence of God can be an entertaining activity for atheists. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs.
Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of both believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: 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 to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.
The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.

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