What’s the Big Idea?
Are shared human values possible and sustainable without religion? This is the subject of life philosopher Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, in which he turns the tide of “new atheist” discourse by arguing that religion has quite a lot to teach atheists (like himself) about how to live well.
De Botton’s book mines religious practices like “ritual apology” – a yearly confessional in which members of a community publicly repent everything awful they’ve done to each other over the past year (he uses the example of Yom Kippur from Jewish tradition) – for structures that secular communities can adopt to reinforce their shared values.
“Shared values?” you may protest, “Poppycock! What I value is my personal freedom from all such dogma!” But de Botton argues that core humanist values like kindness, compassion, justice, and value of children are more universal than you might think. Where we tend to fall short, he says, is in practicing what our hearts preach without some external structures to remind us.
What’s the Significance?
Non-religious people in a world where increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated marketing messages compete to inflame our desires for beauty, youth, wealth, and status are left with basically three choices:
1) When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
2) Create and huddle within isolated, fortified communities of like-minded individuals.
3) Strive to change the public discourse around how we want to live.
Option 3 is the most difficult, but also arguably the most honorable choice, because Rome, after all, is us.
But a viable, competitive alternative to religious orthodoxy on the one hand and the seductive power of product and lifestyle marketing on the other must, de Botton argues, contain structures that enable it to sustain its core principles. Businesses understand this. Religions understand this. But outside of these citadels, and to quote a much younger Bob Dylan, far too many of us are blowin’ in the wind.
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