Philosopher’s book aims to end ‘God Wars’
In recent years, fierce debates have divided passionate atheists from firm believers. Now famous thinker Alain de Botton has provoked a storm of debate by suggesting a ‘middle way’.
Alain de Botton is one of the best-known and best-selling philosophers in the world. His new book is a celebration of prayer, meditation, spiritual art and a host of other religious customs. It may come as a surprise, then, to discover that he has never believed in God.
In Religion For Atheists, de Botton argues that a religion can soothe, teach and bind people together whether or not they believe its doctrines. For him, religion is as much about satisfying emotional needs as explaining how the world works.
A glance at the book’s contents page reveals much about what its author admires in religious faith: chapters focus on themes such as community, tenderness, education and architecture. He praises the sense of togetherness created by Christian masses and Buddhist tea ceremonies, the emotional power of religious art and the way shared worship can help people to imagine a world beyond themselves.
This approach contrasts strikingly with many other recent books about religion. In the last decade famous atheists like Richard Dawkins have penned controversial arguments against the existence of God, and the resulting debates between believers and non-believers have often been ferocious.
De Botton accuses these so-called ‘God Wars’ not only of causing bad blood, but also of being tedious: ‘The most boring question we can ask about religions’, he says, ‘is whether or not they are true’. He wants to focus less on our disagreements about God and more on what each side of the debate can learn from the other.
But not everybody is impressed. Members of both camps have criticised de Botton’s ‘middle way’ for its ‘pick and mix’ approach. Atheist opponents question the need for worship, while many believers reject the possibility of religion without faith.
Let us pray?
Alain de Botton is not alone among atheists and agnostics in wishing for some of the benefits that religion can offer. Some attend religious gatherings more to feel comforted, calmed and closer to their neighbours than to learn about God. Rituals have a social and emotional value that has little to do with truth, and atheists need their benefits just as much as believers.
But critics from both sides of the divide feel that religious practices are meaningless without faith: the sense of community in a mosque or temple comes from shared beliefs, while prayer is a vain, hollow charade unless you believe that God is listening. To go through the motions of worship without commitment is simply hypocritical.
- Should the purpose of religion be to make people happier?
- Is it okay to participate in religious ceremonies if you do not believe in God?
- Design a ritual or activity that you think would create a sense of togetherness in your school or community. Use examples from religions for inspiration.
- In a group, discuss the difference between religion, faith and belief, and whether it is possible to have one without the others. Write up your conclusions
Some People Say...
“A life without rituals is a life without meaning.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should anyone bother with religions they don’t believe in?
- It is possible to find a religion interesting and important without believing it is the ultimate truth. Muslims might admire the Bible, Christians the Qur’an or atheists the teachings of Buddha, just not as a sacred text. Studying a religion offers a profound insight into the cultures and people who practice it. Whether you can actually participate without joining the faith is a different question.
- Isn’t it possible to have rituals outside of religion?
- Certainly: proms, Sunday lunches, football matches, New Year – each of these is a sort of ritual, and most countries celebrate national holidays as well as religious ones. Some non-religious people, though, feel that none of these give them the same deep emotions and connections as religion.
- Alain de Botton
- With a family fortune of over $200 million, de Botton is probably the richest philosopher in the world. His bestselling books and television programmes are aimed at making philosophy relevant to ordinary people.
- A doctrine is a very specific and well-defined set of rules or beliefs such as the Ten Commandments.
- Also known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion, Mass is a ceremony in which Christians celebrate Jesus Christ as their saviour and God on Earth. Participants share bread and wine to symbolise the body and blood that they believe he sacrificed for their sake.
- Tea ceremony
- Rituals surrounding tea exist all over East Asia, but they stem from the ancient Buddhist tea ceremony. Buddhists believe that tea is cleansing, and the ceremony is about both meditation and creating a bond between the drinkers.
- Richard Dawkins
- Although he originally became famous as an expert on genetic evolution, Richard Dawkins is perhaps best known now for his uncompromising criticisms of religious belief, summarised in his book The God Delusion.