Book Review: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

came into my hands the other day, recommended by a friend. The book was published by Penguin in 2012.

I’ve now finished the book and given it a rating on Goodreads & Amazon of 3 out of 5 stars


Initially, this book held great possibilities for me. It seemed an intriguing thesis.

De Botton, an atheist, acknowledges that although he has no supernatural beliefs, there are many good things in religious practice – and he cites the examples of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism – which would be of benefit to secular society. So he proposes that the secular world should take all that’s good in religious practice, and apply it in secular institutions – minus the supernatural beliefs.

“Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular rituals and encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence.” All tasks should be done through relationship. (This is a quote from a Christian source, Annie Naish, who is a missioner with the Lee Abbey community.) And De Botton has taken this on board well, as he sets forth his ideas.

I like books of philosophy which ruminate about our society and our presumptions and our contemporary culture. The author’s premise seemed to enable him to come from a fresh perspective, free of ‘attitude’, of the kind we associate with the over-exposed Richard Dawkins.

But ultimately I felt that de Botton’s ideas (which he illustrates in various photoshopped pictures throughout his book) would work best on the walls of the Hayward Gallery as part of their exhibition: “An Alternative Guide to the Universe.”

I will however admit that his book works well as a stimulant for discussion. And I agree that many people who have no ‘supernatural beliefs’ would appreciate and benefit from numerous good things about religious practice and customs. And it should not be necessary to hold those beliefs, in order to benefit from all those good things.

I was amused by the author’s argument about using culture in place of scripture; I myself know very well how, for instance, the operas of Wagner can be “secular society’s new sacrament”, and how the profound messages to be found in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” can (to quote de Botton) “take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms.”

On page 113 he says “Christianity concerns itself…with the inner confused side of us.” I accept that this in many cases is true.

Then on pg 122 he says that his university of the future would provide classes in:

1) reconsidering work,

2) improving relationships wth children

3) reconnecting with nature


4) facing illness.

His imaginary university would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying, and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

Although I was amused by these suggestions, I could see that in reality they would not work at all.

De Botton makes several observations about the human condition, of which this is an example: on pg 192 he remarks how many go through life “dynamiting their chances of success through idiocy and impatience”. I can relate to much of what he says about the default setting of human life, but I don’t agree with his overarching philosophical premise.

One of his points is that religions have fully recognised how sad life is – unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world – and have evolved systems to deal with it. This is a good point and yet, for me, his thesis demands further questions: “But what then…?” and “Why should…?”

This is a book which carried me through for a long way… and then I got to the final third of the book and realised there’s a giant hole at the centre of the author’s argument, and it all ends on a down-note.

Beyond his thesis is my unanswered protest, “But I still don’t understand how…” and I believe many would share that position, having thought through how his ideas would work in practice.

As I finished reading this book, I found myself thinking about one of his statements, about how sad this life is – which is fully recognised by the religions he cites, unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world. Then I found this quote from one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  It was in the entry for 5 August, in the book Precious Thoughts of Thomas Merton: Daily readings  From the Correspondence of Thomas Merton:

What is the trolley I am probably getting off?  The trolley is called a special kind of hope. The streetcar of expectation… of things becoming  much more intelligible, of things being  set in a new kind of order, and so on. Point one, things are not going to get better. Point two, things are going to get worse. I will not dwell on point two. Point three, I don’t need to be on the trolley car anyway…. You can call the trolley anything you like, I have got off it.

Ultimately I believe that Thomas Merton is a writer whose words and spiritual authority I would trust more than those of Alain de Botton.

Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here:

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