Godless on Sunday

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Published: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 09:24 Updated: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:07

Book: Religion For Atheists
Author: Alain de Botton
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books
Pages: 320
Price: Rs. 599
Year: 2012

A Sunday morning set aside for worship, followed by fellowship, a communal gathering over refreshments, in itself imparts a peaceful rhythm to the mad pace of daily life
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Delhi 

Some years ago, a friend of mine, who is a scientist and an atheist, discovered that I believed in my faith, though I do not necessarily wear it on my sleeve. He quietly murmured, “Well, at least you had a fair sense of festivities and a rhythm to the year. Sometimes I rue the fact that we brought up our son in a staunchly secular and atheist environment. So he has missed out on the richness that a religion has to offer.” It is a sentiment expressed and explored by Alain de Botton in Religion for Atheists

The early pages dwell upon his upbringing “in a committedly atheistic household, as the son of two secular Jews who placed religious belief somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus. I recall my father reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive God might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight years old at the time”. 

Gilbert de Botton was a banker, based in Switzerland, who went to work for the Rothschilds before going on to found Global Asset Management. In a recent interview his son says of him: “He was extreme. I think it was a generational thing.” Later he adds that his father was a stricter version of Richard Dawkins. And yet, when Gilbert died in 2000, he was buried in a Jewish cemetery, beneath a Hebrew headstone in Willesden, north-west London, because, as his son writes pointedly, “he had, intriguingly, omitted to make more secular arrangements”.  

‘I recognised that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths’ 

People’s philosopher Alain de Botton is known for his sharp and astute commentaries on contemporary life. Religion for Atheists is Botton’s latest offering. He argues that being an atheist and living in a predominantly secular society implies that there is a tendency to look down upon all religions and thus throw the baby out with the bath water. “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.” 

He is slowly coming around to the view that a staunch atheist too stands to gain considerably from familiarising himself with some of the basic tenets of religion. He opts to discuss only three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism. He feels that “if mention is made here of only three of the world’s twenty-one largest religions, it is no sign of favouritism or impatience, just a consequence of the way that the emphasis of this book lies on comparing religion in general with the secular realm, rather than on comparing an array of religions with one another”. 

In his mid-twenties, Botton underwent a crisis of faithlessness. Through this period, not for a moment did he doubt his belief that God did not exist, but he was “simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content… I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths”.

Probably, borrowing theological elements and infusing them into a secular existence in 2012 is not a mere coincidence, given the socio-economic gloom that Europe is currently experiencing. Today, it is estimated that Britain has over three million skilled people unemployed, a figure equivalent to that immediately post-war. For years, too, there has been a steady decline in the size of congregations attending church services in Britain. So much so, churches are being converted for other uses, including pubs! But, with the loss of jobs, financial insecurity and in many cases, the very real and imminent danger of losing homes (since most are mortgaged), people in Europe are going through an intense period of flux. 

It is not out of order, then, to begin turning to religion or elements thereof for some solace of hope, peace and stability. A simple act of having Sunday morning set aside for worship, followed by fellowship, a communal gathering of the congregants over refreshments, in itself imparts a peaceful rhythm to the mad pace of daily life. As Botton says perceptively, “among the cannier initiatives of religion, then, has been the provision of regular souvenirs of the transcendent, at morning prayer and the weekly service, at the harvest festival and the baptism, on Yom Kippur and on Palm Sunday. The secular world is lacking an equivalent cycle of moments during which we, too, might be prodded to imaginatively step out of the earthly city and recalibrate our lives according to a larger and more cosmic set of measurements”. 

‘It describes every level of the museum, organised as “gallery of suffering, gallery of compassion, gallery of fear, gallery of love” till the “gallery of self-knowledge” is achieved’ 

It also gives many people a feeling of belonging to a community, without feeling lost. The author says, “Religions are wise in not expecting us to deal with all of our emotions on our own.” 

The author remarks that borrowing heavily from religions is not unusual or unknown. History has proven time and time again that most art is very deeply entrenched in or inspired by ecclesiastical teachings. So, for “some atheists, one of the most difficult aspects of renouncing religion is having to give up on ecclesiastical art and all the beauty and emotion therein”. But he warns that “what we must never do is to treat works of art religiously, especially if (as is often the case) they happen to be religious in origin. 

“In many countries museums were explicitly founded as new, secular environments in which religious art could (in contravention of the wishes of its makers) be seen stripped of its theological context. It was no coincidence that, during the period of the revolutionary government in France in 1792, only three days separated the declaration of the state’s official severance from the Catholic Church and the inauguration of the Palais du Louvre as the country’s first national museum. The Louvre’s galleries were quickly filled with items looted from French Catholic churches, and subsequently, thanks to Napoleon’s campaigns, from monasteries and chapels across Europe.”  

Botton argues that if museums are to be the new churches then there has to be a rearrangement in the curating of the art, without actually transforming the art itself. Two-thirds into the book, he has a fabulous illustration of a “new” Tate Modern, London. It describes every level of the museum, organised as “gallery of suffering, gallery of compassion, gallery of fear, gallery of love” till the “gallery of self-knowledge” is achieved.

Reading Religion for Atheists, along with arch-atheist Richard Dawkins’ recent article, “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible” is a sobering exercise in recognising that religions are repositories of social practices and experiences gathered over hundreds of years. Institutionalisation and the creation of rituals as an integral part of these faiths should only be considered at face value since these ideologies do contain tips on how to manage our chaotic lives. As Dawkins puts it succinctly, “Whatever else the Bible might be — and it really is a great work of literature — it is not a moral book and young people need to learn that important fact because they are very frequently told the opposite.” 

Easy to read, Religion for Atheists is thought-provoking, but a “must have” on every bookshelf.  

A Sunday morning set aside for worship, followed by fellowship, a communal gathering over refreshments, in itself imparts a peaceful rhythm to the mad pace of daily life
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews