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Review: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

I really like Alain de Botton and his accessible, absorbing approach to philosophy. When I read the press coverage surrounding the book launch, which included de Botton’s arresting announcement that he wanted to build a secular temple, I was intrigued. But, in the end, I really didn’t enjoy this book, I’m afraid.

The structure of each chapter is very formulaic:

  1. Identify a positive aspect of religion
  2. Cite a singular example of where this is lacking in modern society
  3. Propose a secular solution

The majority of his arguments collapse at stage 2. For example:

  1. Churches get strangers talking to one another
  2. Restaurants don’t
  3. Set up new restaurants

The problem, of course, is that the assignment of this quality to restaurants is arbitrary. There are plenty of secular places and events, from knitting circles to Skeptics in the Pub, where strangers are encouraged to talk and interact. I simply don’t accept the premise that this is a function of religious society that is absent from secular society.

Similarly:

  1. The church guides us on practical life skills
  2. Universities teach fact-based courses like history, with little regard for life skills
  3. Change university curricula

I studied at a university with an Institute for Health and Society and a Campus for Ageing and Vitality: I don’t accept the premise that universities only offer impractical courses.

And so it goes on. Almost every chapter is built upon one of these illogical leaps – and, not only that, but the structure of the book gives little expression to the downsides of the prescribed form of living encouraged by religion, and its secular reversioning encouraged by de Botton.

Overall, this was a disappointing and frustrating read from one of my favourite authors. It feels a little like a cynical attempt to cash-in on the growing popularity of secularism. I sorely hope de Botton returns to form with his next work!

Religion for Atheists is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

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