Just last week I mentioned to a friend, one I hold in high regard, that I read Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and found it helpful. His response was sharp, withering, and his body language severe. Though he ‘d not read the book, he used words like ‘pompous’, ‘pretentious’ and others I can’t repeat. I was so taken aback by the strength of his reaction I was almost too frightened to pursue it further. Best to move on, I thought.
Clearly there is something about de Botton, in both his writing and presence, that you either love or … don’t. Perhaps his style is an acquired taste. For me, the ease and clarity with which he communicates is appealing, and his philosophical attention to the things of my own life encouraging. His earlier reflections on work, love, happiness and architecture have all been engaging. Though I don’t treat him as the final word, he never fails to send me off in new directions with courage and interest.
For a person of faith, there is certainly much in the assumptions of Religion for Atheists to critique. De Botton’s reduction of a comprehensive narrative of faith and life to a set of ‘consoling, subtle or just charming rituals’ that the discerning unbeliever might find ‘sporadically useful’ is more than slightly frustrating. That said, throughout the book there is a level of appreciation for religion’s role in society that I would so much prefer to Dawkins’ arrogant dismissal. I reckon people like me do well to listen to those who see my faith–its history, institutions and rituals–from the outside. They may well help me to see, critique and value it in new ways.
What’s more, de Botton’s much publicised School of Life is booming. The waiting lists for the Melbourne version are extraordinary. For many, de Botton and others are connecting with perceived needs in our culture in ways we do well to notice.