In my last post I indicated that Christian tradition was still a source of wisdom, insight and guidance as I seek to live responsibly and respectfully in a morally complex world. Here, I’d like to continue that thought in the form of a casual review of Alain de Botton’s, Religion For Atheists.
For me, Judeo-Christian tradition represents roughly six thousand years of contemplation on the nature of the interaction between the individual psyche and society. Many of its insights are attributed to epiphany and many of its moral determinations attributed to the particular character and purpose of an existent God. The question before me was whether removing God from that tradition necessarily meant undermining its conclusions. I decided that it does not, although a significant reinterpretation must accompany the process.
In Botton’s own words, his book “tries… to examine aspects of religious life which contain concepts that could fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society… It hopes to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.”
I want to pick out four of the nine aspects of religious life that Botton identifies, that mean the most to me and then blend his views with my own feelings and experiences.
Community- We are social creatures, relational beings. Community is something that we all need and crave and yet find increasingly hard to involve ourselves in. There are virtual communities aplenty, and these are important, but they rarely entail the mutuality, trust, and depth of friendship that must obtain when you are face to face with others on a regular basis. Where physical community exists today it is most often community of interest; like-minded people getting together for discussion, leisure pursuits, romance & c. The advantage that communities of faith have over these is inclusivity. Faith communities often comprise a multigenerational, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse congregation who are impelled to interact with one another, but are given a structured environment in which to do so. When I moved to the States 2 years ago it was the first big transition of my life that did not involve an immediate search for a church. I have lived all over the place, but as a Christian was always able to find a ready-made family waiting to welcome me. I was able to play in numerous worship bands and speak at services in various church denominations, I had a role and a place. Without this, meeting people, finding friends, and building a community has been very difficult. But without a praise band and a sermon what kind of a structured ritualised community could exist for atheists? For the answer Botton draws on the Eucharist meal and proposes ‘the agape restaurant’ (these do exist). Here, people would come together to share food and company, sitting at communal tables and following a simple program that would incorporate ice breakers, talking points and moments for reflection (gratitude for the food and those that prepared it, the nature of the situation, openness to the new and challenging & c.).
Kindness/Pessimism- I combine these two as they are flip sides of the same coin. Both speak to the perspective that can be gained from taking the time to exercise ones metaphysical muscles in consideration of humanity’s common plight and common glory. Kindness speaks to the overt and unapologetic approach religion takes to directive morality. Where libertarian and post-modern thinking has focused far more on the freedom of the individual to do as he or she chooses, religion has never hesitated to prescribe good behavior, this is because it insists on certain universal truths. Although prevailing secular moralities tend to view universal ethical systems with suspicion, they owe far too much to religious notions of the inherent worth of the individual to dismiss them with any legitimacy. Religion makes us better people by forcing us to look for the good in others. Where utilitarianism, hedonism or merit based systems would long ago have passed over the mediocre and less praise-worthy among us, religion insists we all possess something of value that confers rights and demands respect. With the same stroke, however, and here is the pessimism, it reminds us that we are all deeply flawed and in no position to be judging others in the first place. Religious pessimism has long been the drive toward transcendence, toward grounding our sense of self in something larger than the pettiness and mundane vicissitudes of everyday life. With no God up there, there is less impetus but no less importance in “setting our minds on things above.” Death comes to us all and will eradicate everything that does not root itself in the deeper, and dare I say, universal nature of humanity.
Art- Following directly from that last thought, art is one of the richest resources for contemplation, reflection and inspiration available to us. Religious art has always understood the power of music, imagery and the written word to move and reorient people. It has utilised art to aid devotion and convey doctrine. In his book, Alain de Botton points out that, removed from a religious context, art has often lost a lot of its metaphysical power as, once again, insistence on leaving meaning creation to individual agency has left many people at a loss as to how to engage with it. In galleries, curators often arrange pieces by artist, or school but rarely according to existential affliction or emotional state. Botton describes visitors to a gallery thusly, “Patently unable to draw much sustenance from their surroundings, they stand bemused… They appear to want to be transformed by art, but the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike. They resemble the disappointed participants in a failed séance.” If a gallery existed in which the peaks and troughs of life (joy, pain, loss, love, confusion) were set as themes and the art hung accordingly, how many more people might benefit from art’s spirituality?
No doubt to the faithful among you these may seem insipid lessons to draw from the millenia old depths of religious tradition. But for me, they are what stand out, so far, as being salvageable from the wreckage of faith. This is undoubtedly a cursory review, but one that I hope will provoke some discussion.