In his 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 pessimistic about optimism. “[O]ne of the [modern] world’s dominant characteristics, and certainly its greatest flaw, is its optimism.” Every consumer is surrounded by “the narrative of improvement,” the promise of progress, health, and happiness through science and the marketplace.
But the promise is oversold. The realities are, to paraphrase de Botton, that politics never creates perfect justice, marriage is never fully free of conflict, money doesn’t buy security, friends aren’t always loyal.
To be prepared for the real world, take to heart the mind-set of religion, says de Botton. 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 hardest 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, without god, what would be a credible source to teach such acceptance (aside, perhaps, from life itself)? De Botton recommends science. Atheists can meditate on the 200 to 400 billion stars in the galaxy, the 100 billion galaxies and other wonders in the heavens. “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 prefer a different natural wonder: the history of life. While the motionless stars are magnificent, living things now and in the past teach us more actively about struggle, loss, and persistence. And while the galaxies may remind me that my life and death are insignificant, I prefer contemplating the billion-year-long chain of living cells and molecules that give my life a context. Not a bad bible for a non-theist.
My thanks to Iain Carstairs at ScienceandReligion.com for sending me this book last year. 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.