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Can you have religion for atheists?

20th January 2012

Alain De Botton has published a new book entitled, provocatively, Religion for Atheists. Terry Eagleton’s blistering (and in some ways brilliant) review in the Guardian is here, and is likely to be only the first such attack.

Unlike Eagleton, and many of the commentators beneath the article, I don’t hold De Botton in contempt. He seems to me to be the Norah Jones of philosophy: detested by those who see themselves as elite, whether jazz musicians or scholars, for the simple reason of being popular. Yes, he never finished his phD, but De Botton has done a great job of translating big and important ideas for a wide audience. His brand of philosophy connects with people’s real lives- not something philosophers usually achieve.

The idea that religion might be of use in improving our lives is not a new trope for De Botton. His 2004 book Status Anxiety astutely diagnosed the cause of most of our modern misery: our obsession with our relative position in the world. As a prescription, it offered several alternatives: misanthropy, which writes off other human beings as terrible judges of value; art, which tends to favour the underdog over the big cheese, and perhaps most surprisingly, Christianity.

De Botton, who is clearly not a believer himself, lauds the Christian conception of human value, which disconnects worth from income, property, achievement, and attractiveness, and grounds it instead only in the love of God. This subversive vision, which declares the first shall be last, is and has been a dramatically freeing idea, and has inspired huge numbers of people over the centuries to leave their pursuit of status and instead attend to the poor and marginalised.

It is also clear that De Botton has some grounds for pointing out how other religious ideas and practices are good for our social health. We all know community is a good thing, as are generosity, responsibility and self-restraint. After a year of moral hand-wringing over our various crises of integrity, any solid ground we can find on which to anchor a good society is welcome.

But – and this is the big question – can you get the outcomes of religion without starting from the beliefs? Can you, as it were, get into the sheep pen without going through the gate? There has been a popular idea within academia that it is behaviour, not belief, that is the defining characteristic of this ‘sociological phenomenon’ we call religion. But is this really true?

The question of what is the true relationship between what we believe and what we do is hardly amenable to definitive answer, but there are many who see religion as fundamentally, if not exclusively about belief. Julian Baggini, a secular philosopher, has, of late, been leading this charge against the ‘behaviouralism’ conception of religion, pointing out that underlying beliefs about behaviours like prayer are inextricable from the outcomes.

Christian thought would of course answer that radical transformation requires a change of more than just action, or even mind-set. If someone tells you not to worry about your status because your worth comes from being made in the image of God, this will make no difference to you unless you believe it, and through believing it, are changed.

Additionally, as we have seen in other areas, once you instrumentalise something that is of worth in and of itself, you risk undermining what made it valuable in the first place. This applies beyond religion, sport, for example, is a social good, a thing done for the joy of it, often with others, but when you focus on one side effect (health) it becomes a chore and a duty.

Theos believes, contrary to the impression sometimes given by the media, that most expressions of religious belief in the UK today are social goods. By all means, explain how religious ideas can be useful, because we’re all fed up the woolly headed “all religion is pernicious” narrative coming from other quarters. However, we don’t think you can get the golden egg without allowing space for the goose to flourish. Ultimately, I’m afraid there’s no other way in except through the gate.

Elizabeth Hunter is Director of Theos

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