Religion for Atheists

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.”


For de Botton’s atheist, the stars replace god as a reminder of all that surpasses him. 

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 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.

Taking the Afterlife Seriously

We may not believe that our life will continue after we die, but we certainly do count on an afterlife of a different kind: We rely on other people living on after we are gone. If we thought that for some reason they would not do so, our own lives would lose much of their meaning.

So argues Samuel Scheffler, professor at New York University, in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times, Sept 21, 2013.

Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

asteroid destroys earth

Imagine there’s no future.

To make his point, Scheffler offers two doomsday scenarios. In the first, one knows that the world will be destroyed by an asteroid. “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, reform society, compose music, and perhaps even have children.

In the second scenario, imagine a world in which, although no one dies suddenly, no one is born. Humans have become infertile. There is no global apocalypse, but there is also no human future. “Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.”

Growing implies the future. (

Growth presupposes a future.

Scheffler’s point is a provocative one, and I asked myself whether some version of this assumption of living continuity is true of plants and other animals as well as humans. In a weaker form, I think it is. Plants and most animals, although they lack consciousness of the future, are propelled forward by their bodily design to grow, survive and reproduce. The very arrangements that make a thing alive—all its systems and their coordination—reflect their success in providing the organism with a future. Without a future, their capacities for life, like ours, would be pointless.

Atheism, Genes, and Spirituality

Spirituality, studies suggest, is in our genes. Not religion, mind you; that’s more a matter of upbringing. But our inclination towards spiritual thoughts and feelings is in our DNA.

Atheists might find this conclusion and the research behind it to be both a help and a hindrance when they assert their disbelief in deities. On the one hand, it helps to have research showing that the feeling, the mood, of spirituality is innate and is independent of a church’s insistence on a god. On the other hand, the same research hands religious believers the argument that science has discovered yet another sign of “the God in each of us.”

How research about the genetic basis for spirituality is interpreted depends in part on how people define the difference between religion and spirituality. The distinctions drawn by the researchers themselves vary slightly but follow similar lines.

One review is included in “Personality, Spirituality and Religion” by Eric D. Rose and Julie J. Exline in the Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality (2012). Here is how the authors summarize the relationship between religious behavior (including thought and emotion) and genetics.

One major theme to emerge from the study of behavioral genetics and religion is that internal and personal aspects of religious life (e.g. belief) are more influenced by genetics and less influenced by shared environment than are external and impersonal aspects of religious life (e.g. religious affiliation…). It has been suggested that genetics exert greater influence on internal aspects of religious life because religious beliefs express internal wants, needs, and wishes….Behavioral genetics has forced reevaluation of the prevalent assumption that people become religious solely through environmental influence.

Rose and Exline draw the distinction between the internal and external aspects of religion. The former is belief, the emotional component of religion, part of one’s basic temperament, and it is genetically-based.  Such an inclination towards non-material concerns (values, purposes) may or may not encompass the supernatural, including gods.

A similar view was explained by psychiatrist Robert Cloninger of Washington University in St. Louis in a 2005 ABC News story, “Twin Research Links Genetics and Adult Spirituality”:

I think it is important to distinguish religion in terms of things like going to church and following a creed. That tends to be very much influenced by the patterns of your parents. Spirituality, meanwhile, has to do with a way of feeling and thinking, which tends to lead to an acceptance of the role of a higher intelligence. Studies show there are specific receptors in the brain that influence a person’s ability to get into that mode of thought.

Such a description of these spirituality-friendly receptors in the brain could be good news for atheists of both the stronger (“God does not exist”) and weaker (“I have no belief in a god”) schools. The reality of such receptors strengthens the position that the thinking and feeling that find a higher intelligence are genetically rooted, that therefore god is not as real as the church would argue, that a person who doesn’t believe in god but feels spiritual in other ways is quite normal.

But I can also see how this genetic research could work to the disadvantage of atheists. The religiously devout can argue that research confirms that God planted the seeds of spirituality in all of us so that individuals could find their own way to God with the help of the church.

For myself, I find this research not so surprising. As the summaries suggest, spiritual tendencies are aspects of the basic components of how a person feels and thinks. I can see my own spirituality as having grown out of my uncertainty about whether I’m living my life as well as I could, along with my long-standing curiosity about scientific information. Spirituality is not something to be required or rejected but is the capacity in us to look beyond ourselves, in the direction of either religion or science, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.