Religion for Atheists

I’m currently reading an excellent and uplifting book by atheist Alain de Botton called:

And in the spirit of giving stuff away, I will send a copy free – no matter where you are in the world – to the first five atheist letter writers who can suggest an element of religion or spirituality which secular humanists might benefit from within their own organisation, and why –  as this exact subject is the theme of this very book.

This is a book which is going to be around for quite a while – I think it will become a classic.  So get writing, and prepare to start reading!


A day later, we have our first winner, Brock Haussamen from Living as Meaning:

Hi Iain,
What secular humanists and their organizations might gain from an element of religion or spirituality.
As I have gone to church willingly but not regularly with my Episcopalian wife, several items come to mind. There is much to be said for a church or other congregation as a human community. As a group that is not family, is not work-related, and, in suburbia, is not even entirely local, a congregation can be refreshing company.
Both friendships and enmities take place there, of course, but the occasion of worship (more than the dogma and much of the ritual) leaves room for people to think about and converse about suffering, awe, nature, music, the due processes of dying, milestones of birth and marriage, the nature of community, and more.
I also like the literacy of services, hearing the discussions of words and meanings, having the chance to browse through the bible to read some old stories that are well told–as I tune out the supernaturalism and the sin. Religion is a human endeavor, at its best perhaps when members of long-running congregations come together to be with each other and not just strictly for “business.” That is a benefit any organization could learn from.
Brock Haussamen
Living as Meaning 

Now maybe Brock’s point is that religion produces excellent wives, but all the other stuff he mentions is good too.  This must be an atheism even God would be pleased with – so book number one is winging its way to Secular City!

Well, that was the only reply – so that’s the end of that offer.  Now that I’ve read the whole book I can say it does contain excellent observations about the lack of depth in secular life, in its trite, meaningless and pathetically drab colours.  It opens with an awful anecdote about de Botton’s parents lambasting his 8 year old sister about her belief in God – an appalling, arrogant couple they seem, mocking any children whose cherished beliefs do not coincide with theirs.  And de Botton himself claims that there is still some satisfaction in ridiculing the faithful for their belief in God.

But once he navigates past this poisonous formative atmosphere – itself a terrible indictment of secular family life – de Botton steers the reader to a world of insight into the cohesion which religious ideas lend to human life.  I learned much about religion, and all of it was good; I agreed wholeheartedly with the wretched ugliness of modern life and its infuriating distractions.  How ironic it is, he says, that only in the age of the Blackberry do we realise why monasteries were created, and that a society priding itself on an overabundance of information, no longer has the capacity to concentrate on any of it for long.  Society even becomes an accomplice to our ignorance, as it presents us each day with a new load forcing us to jettison all the drama pushed on us as urgent news only the day before.  As he points out, there has been no news in the field of Buddhism for 2,500 years, yet worldwide scrutiny of it continues in depth.

At one point, de Botton considers whether ugly surroundings are actually harmful to the soul – a loaded question few secularists would admit to wondering about.  The drab, neglected state of the community hall is ironically, he notes, evidence of the indavisability of being part of such a community.  His views on art are reassuringly revolutionary: art galleries organise their content according to the education of the critics, when they should be classifying works according to the emotional impact they will have on us.

All in all, a thought provoking book.  Happy reading, Mr Haussamen!

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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8 Responses to Religion for Atheists

  1. Brock’s right about the community aspect, and to some extent the organization American Atheists is attempting to move in this direction with events like the Reason Rally. On the other hand, having a community based on not believing in something seems to lack a certain substance. Shouldn’t people group together based on positives, like what they do believe or value? Plenty of people don’t believe in vampires but they don’t congregate based on that belief.

    Now, having a value like ‘humanism,’ a belief in the value of people, makes total sense. Or, practicing yoga, or playing a musical instrument, or studying microbiology. Those are all positives. Those have substance. And if there’s anything the atheists could take from religious organization, it’s that people bond over shared beliefs and practices – postives, not negatives. Even when the Protestants split from the Catholics, they had to codify just what it was they did believe in. They didn’t just gather around to not be Catholics. They worked to define some positive things they could identify with.

    So that’s my two cents. Being an atheist isn’t really that important. That’s just identifying what you don’t believe in. What’s far more important is identifying the positives. I know I have come across as a kind of atheist counter-point in these comments before, but I’ve never identified myself that way. Identifying as an atheist just doesn’t seem to mean anything. Finding out who you are is far more important than finding out who you are not.

    • That’s something I never expected you to say. At the reason rally, a woman got up and started screaming at everyone about the invisible “bur”.

      kah! she kept on about it and finally led the crowd in a chant to build up the wall between state and church. she was mad as hell. i was tempted to post a picture of pamela anderson in an invisible “bur”.

      kah! i resisted the urge to trivialise it; i’m sure there was a valid point somewhere. but pam would have been something to chant about!

      by the way, check out this film, next time you have a little time. it’s far and away the most engrossing and important film i’ve seen in the last ten years, and that includes all the documentaries, everything.

      I’ve never seen everything so clearly, in the context of the modern confused world and its origins. really, a beautiful film about america – they should play it at a reason rally. it’s central to everything: until the problems in this film are sorted out, or at least understood, a life can hardly be built on reason at all

      • There might have been plenty of nutjobs at the last Reason Rally – including a rather famous group of morons I won’t dignify by mentioning on the internet. That’s what happens when huge masses of people get together. But, I was subscribed to r/atheism at the time and it looked liked a pretty decent deal overall (lots of pics posted and discussion there.)

        If anything, a gathering of atheists in the name of reason can’t be anything but positive if they are really promoting the ideas of reasoning and being reasonable. Let’s just get together and be reasonable… I’d love to see that become a motto of human endeavor, wouldn’t you? So, in some ways that kind of grouping is similar to this site, which says, “Let’s look at this whole thing reasonably.” And if the two opposing positions of science and religion can approach each other more reasonably, that gives me hope.

        I had a really great conversation with a Christian friend of mine a few months ago; and, I realized that even though we might disgree on mythology, we didn’t really disagree on principle. Granted, he’s extremely open for a Christian and I’m extremely open to spirituality for a ‘disbeliever,’ but this movement towards finding common ground is the key to the whole problem. I’ll check out this video in the next couple days.

  2. And in the spirit of secular whatsits I embellished the convo between chuck and jezza – hmm, perhaps they could be watching the horseless chariot race in the bar..

  3. The book just arrived. Many thanks, Iain. Looking forward to it even more after your comments above.


  4. Brock Haussamen says:

    I really enjoyed Religion for Atheists. Thanks again. My post on it is here:

    • I enjoyed your review of it too; I’m rapidly accumulating a library of such books representing a complete change in how mankind sees itself – very heartening to find, after thinking along these lines for 35 years

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