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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.

This 1,842nd post was filed under: Book Reviews, , , .

Photo-a-day 184: Trinity Green

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This is the ruin of Holy Trinity Church, which stands in Trinity Green in Stockton. I used to walk past this every day when I lived in Stockton and walked into uni.

Holy Trinity Church was an Anglican church consecrated in 1835. In the 20th century, it suffered a series of unfortunate events.

Those of superstitious mind might date the start of the troubles to 1955, when the church decided to remove all of the headstones from its churchyard, and convert it into an open space for fun and frolics. Perhaps eerily, one of the final headstones to be removed carried the prophetic inscription

Death to me little warning gave,
And quickly called me to my grave

Just a year later – 1956 – stone began to fall from the church’s steeple, and it was soon found to be structurally unsound. The congregation failed raise the £20k needed to repair it, and so, in 1958, the steeple was dismantled.

A decade on, the Anglican congregation dwindled here as elsewhere. The vicar launched a “getting to know you” campaign in which he went door-knocking in the local area, which did enough to keep the church going for a while.

But 1979 brought another huge blow to the church after its organ – worth some £100k – failed. The church could not afford to repair it, and over time, the congregation and the collection plate shrank to an unsustainable level. The church was forced to close in 1982.

Respite in prospect appeared in 1985, as the Greek Orthodox Church took over the building and spent £30k on overhauling the organ. But not long afterwards, the church was ransacked by vandals who stole candlesticks and communion wine – and destroyed the newly repaired organ.

In 1991 – just six years after its reopening – the church was burned down in a fire, the cause of which was never discovered.

Since then, the church has stood as a landmark ruin. The ex-churchyard, now known as Trinity Green, is used for all manner of cultural events. But with its grim history, how long can it be until another disaster befalls the Holy Trinity Church?

This 1,707th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , .

Photo-a-day 166: Quayside seaside

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Newcastle’s quayside seaside, a temporary beach on the iconic quayside, has returned for a second summer. It seemed very successful last year – there were kids playing and adults sunbathing every time I passed.

The monument is to Charles Wesley, and the beach occupies the Square named in his honour. I do wonder quite whether he’d approve of his monument being surrounded by relatively scantily clad sunbathers… but I guess, given that he’s been dead for 224 years, he’s unlikely to register any complaint.

This 1,686th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , .

Photo-a-day 103: Two churches beside one another

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Gosforth High Street features these two Victorian churches next to one another: a quite remarkable sight!

The church on the left of the photo is now a Loch Fyne seafood restaurant. It used to be Gosforth United Reformed Church, but in 2000, merged with two Methodist churches – one of which was the church on the right of this photo – to form the Trinity church, in the church on the right. Are you still following this story?

As an atheist who doesn’t like seafood, neither of the two buildings is especially likely to attract me. It seems fascinating that two branches of Christianity that were so split that they’d bother to build competing churches next to each other have now resolved their theological differences to such a degree that they’ve merged. Heigh ho, religion works in mysterious ways, and it’s always nice to see people patching up differences!

This 1,600th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , .

Christian council prayer avoids favouring a single religion. Apparently.

Let the prayers remain in the agendas and let those who do not want them opt to sit out, because in doing so you are not being presumptuous about people’s faith and viewing your own particular beliefs as more important than others.

According to Ms Bisset of Southport, having Christian prayers formally included on council meeting agendas is the best way to avoid favouring one religion.

That’s an interesting logical leap, to say the least.

This 1,545th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, Quotes, , .

Photo-a-day 60: St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral

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Continuing the theme started on Monday, this is the third of three Newcastle’s cathedrals: the Cathedral Church of St Mary, opened in 1844.

St Mary’s was designed by the famous and prolific architectural genius Augustus Pugin, who also designed the Palace of Westminster and, more parochially, my secondary school.

A small confession (appropriate, I guess, when featuring a Catholic cathedral): I actually took this photo yesterday, as St Mary’s is a stone’s throw from St Nicholas’s, which I featured yesterday: I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

This 1,544th post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , .

Photo-a-day 59: St Nicholas’s Anglican Cathedral

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The second in my series of three cathedrals of Newcastle is the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas Newcastle upon Tyne. I know that doesn’t scan properly, but that’s what they call it. This dates from 1359, and is the seat of the bishop of Newcastle, who – strangely enough – I’ve mentioned once before on here.

Of particular interest to my organist brother, it boasts a fine four-manual Grand Organ built by TC Lewis. I don’t really understand the meaning of those words in that order, but the organ has its own webpage, with very pretty pictures, which I’m sure Glenn will enjoy.

This 1,543rd post was filed under: Photo-a-day 2012, , , , , .

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