In his 2012 book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton has this message for atheists: don’t let your outrage at religion blind you to its wisdom about suffering and its contributions to culture. Religions (in the book, mostly Christianity, some Judaism and Buddhism) show us “how to generate feelings of community, how to promote kindness, how to cancel out the current bias towards commercial values in advertising.”
“And even,” he adds, “how to surrender some of our counterproductive optimism.” De Botton is impatient with optimism and cynical about “the narrative of improvement.”
If you want to prepare yourself for the real world, says de Botton, take to heart the mind-set of religion. It is religion that “has maintained a usefully sober vision, of a kind that the secular world has been too sentimental and cowardly to embrace.” The biblical story of Job, long-suffering from undeserved disasters, brings home the hard lessons. “Job is reminded of the scale of all that surpasses him” and is left “a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails.”
But for the atheist, with no god to instill this “sober vision,” what credible, secular source could do so instead? De Botton recommends science. Atheists can meditate on the billions of stars in the billions of galaxies. “Whatever their value may be to science, the stars are in the end no less valuable to mankind as a solution to our megalomania, self-pity and anxiety.”
I would also suggest another natural wonder: the history of life. While the stars are magnificent, living things now and in the past are master teachers of struggle, loss, and persistence. And while the galaxies may remind me that my life is insignificant, I find affirmation and consolation in the billion-year-long chain of living continuity. Not a bad bible for the non-theist.
My thanks to Iain Carstairs at ScienceandReligion.com for sending me this book two years ago. Iain held a contest on what religion can offer the atheist, which I, as the only contestant, won. Iain, now struggling with cancer, has always searched out the common ground of science, spirit and beauty.
Many religions also promote the frame of mind that, if you just do a, you’ll be rewarded with b. If you do c, d, e, f, …. you’ll be punished with z. Thus pushing lifestyles to only one accepted form of expression. So the suggestion that religion provides a healthy dose of pessimism may be a bit over simplified as it may be more likely that it provides a fear of “doing wrong” and being punished for it. I don’t disagree that there are plenty of beneficial things that can come from religious structures, but I personally believe that those benefits are miniscule in comparison to the harm it can do with the conformity tendencies of many religions. I personally theorize that the religious structures that are much more adaptive and free-form to individual needs would be the most beneficial to human society. In other words, what is supportive of interactive diversity is the most likely to support harmonious living.