Religious believers who read the title of this book would be correct in adopting a sceptical stance towards its contents. Alain de Botton lays his cards on the table with his first sentence: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” This is a deliberate challenge to people of religious faith for whom it is obviously the most important question.
Having reviewed one of de Botton’s earlier books, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I am acquainted with his way of thinking: an intellectual (of the ivory tower variety) and an aesthete, he is always asking himself, “what gives meaning to life?” Of course, any serious-minded person must ask himself this, just as he should ask himself, “What is truth?” de Botton, blessed with a privileged life, does not wait for an answer. The son of secular Jewish parents and conscientiously brought up by them to think of religious belief as irrational nonsense, he admits to a “crisis of faithlessness” in his mid-20s. As many others have done, he listened to the music of Bach and looked at paintings by the Venetian artist, Bellini, and started to ask himself if this world is all there is.
He concludes that it is – but nonetheless, his sensibilities shrink from the aridity of secularism; thus, this wish to rescue “some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.” Throughout it, the author is at pains to reassure his readers that he has not been converted to what might lie behind the potent rituals and symbols of faith: “Much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ”, he informs us. He explores three major religions, Christianity, whose artistic fruits lie all about western Europe; Judaism, his own heritage; and Buddhism, often the last refuge of Western intellectuals, as it doesn’t trouble them with moral absolutes like the Ten Commandments.
More reflective than fellow-atheist Richard Dawkins, de Botton acknowledges that religion can bear good fruit: promoting morality, engendering a spirit of community, utilising art and architecture and encouraging gratitude among other things. His thesis is that these good fruits should be utilised by secular society in order to humanise it – just as long as one doesn’t succumb to discipleship. He attends a Catholic Mass as part of his research into why “God” seems to have got hold of the best tunes. After analysing its psychological and social power, he comes away bolstered by the thought that it is not “the ideal habitat for an atheist. Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.”
His idea is that atheists should invent “Agape restaurants” – places where the community spirit of the Mass could be adapted for a secular world. As is integral to his books, he includes photos to illustrate his ideas, with their own (I can’t avoid the word at this stage) pretentious captions. The “yearly moment of release at the Agape Restaurant” shows a lot of naked people enjoying a bacchanalian banquet. Photographs of solemn-faced naturists are bad enough – but this? It looks like a modern rendering of hell painted by Hieronymus Bosch. St Augustine reminds us that “knowledge without love is diabolism” – and de Botton, cultured, widely read, at home in several languages, is nothing if not knowledgeable.
The author has other good ideas such as a secular Day of Atonement, whereby modern people can apologise to each other for their lapses of good behaviour within a ritualised context. Universities should have a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge. A photograph of a projected “Department for Relationships” is shown: a glass-fronted, open-plan office block, ablaze with lights. “Few would fall asleep” is the caption; not on those office chairs and in that bright and barren milieu, one could respond.
The author’s trouble is that he can’t stop himself from mocking religion while at the same time wanting to cannibalise the fruits of faith: the music of Bach, paintings of Our Lady, Pugin and the Gothic revival and so on. He neglects to ask himself how, if believers are so stupid, superstitious and gullible, they have been able to create such beautiful works of art and why atheists, so rational and reasonable, have failed to do so. His book is characterised by an uncomfortable mixture of mockery and yearning. I ask myself: could it perhaps be simply an elaborate joke?
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.