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Religion for Atheists book summary

Religion for Atheists book cover

The title and blurb of this book sounded interesting enough, so I borrowed an audio book copy and whizzed through it quickly. Though I didn't necessarily agree with everything that was said, I did find some of de Botton's ideas interesting and think we could all benefit from being introduced to them. The premise behind the book is that there are benefits to some of the world's biggest religions that an atheist-centric world could learn about and apply. Here are some of my takeaways.

  • Religion offers a community for us to belong to. As human density has increased, our openness to other human beings have decreased. With the decline in religion, we (especially in cities) are becoming increasingly isolated beings as there is no longer a way of approaching others without seeming predatory or just a weirdo.
  • We had a much greater need for community in the past, e.g. to repair roofs or trade food, which is no longer necessary in today’s modern cities, so we don’t even need to talk to our neighbours anymore. This again makes it all the more strange when we choose to do so.
  • Communal feasts should be brought back. Imagine a situation where strangers come together and sit for a communal meal. People from all walks of life, communities, ethnicities, class etc. would eat and share a meal together. This would surely be an effective way of working towards solving the problems we have today of racism, sexism and other such "us versus them" mentalities.
  • Why do we hold kids to such high moral standards, but not ourselves?
  • Just as it is helpful to hold children to account (motivating them by star charts and the like), we should perhaps admit, as adults, that it might be useful to have someone else hold us to account. It might then be easier to behave in more moral ways, if we believe we are being watched, and if there’s someone who wants to be better. Why does this have to be a supernatural being like a god? Why can we not codify these as human standards?
  • Religion guides us by telling us what to do. For example, with its moral codes (like the 10 commandments) or in religious ceremonies like funerals or bar mitzvahs. Religion understands and caters for human nature well, where we benefit from guidance on how to behave generally, but also that we require some flexibility from time to time, to be the fallible humans that we are (as allowed by the Festival of Fools).
  • Libertarians are so concerned with not allowing anyone, such as religions, to tell us what to do. But they don’t realise that just like children are partially protected by laws from being marketed at at certain times on television, adults perhaps also require protection from advertisers who are subliminally bombarding us with messages about what to consume or what we should aspire for.
  • We should consider how effective education and the passing down of knowledge is in a libertarian society. There is the question of how knowledge is communicated, and also how often that information is repeated to us.
    • Religious masses are great at this, with preachers and pastors actively and emotionally communicating sermons and scriptures in a passionate way, through not just speech, but taste, feeling, sight and action (think about new churches and how they use Christian bands to spread their message!).
    • Lessons are also repeated weekly, drumming into people, the life lessons they need to know and constantly remember.
    • Human beings learn through spaced repetition. This is not how university courses are structured.
  • Religion has scriptures and documents like the bible, to pass on its teachings. For atheists, scriptures and holy texts should be substituted by the arts and humanities. We should draw inspiration and encouragement on how to live our lives through classic books, art, philosophy etc.
    • Humanities should be more celebrated and seen as something useful to learn, rather than being considered solely from the perspective of utilitarianism.
    • Humanities subjects should be reorganised to be truly effective. For e.g. why teach history directly? Instead, teach students based on life lessons, such as learning how to deal with loss, or being resilient, or dealing with a difficult spouse.
  • Religion is also good at combining teachings with action. Atone and cleanse. Conduct a tea ceremony whilst thinking through Buddhist scriptures as your tea cools. Conduct a walking meditation. Libertarian societies could learn from this as a way of ritualising learnings and improving retention.
  • The Catholic religion has created the concept of a mother figure, for all of humanity. She is the person we turn in the times of our despair, when we’re feeling most depressed or hopeless about life. This figure allows us to feel like someone is watching over us, and we’re allowed to feel like a child again, with someone around to whisper “there, there” in our ear. For atheists, we could turn to philosophers for this, someone who has written about some of the darker sides of human nature. We would therefore understand that these feelings are not just unique to us, but common amongst all.
  • Things should be designed beautifully. Looking at beautiful things inspires our better nature and makes us want to be better.
  • Museums could be a substitution for churches. Art in museums should however, be organised by themes that provide the answers to human ills. It should provide answers and inspiration to human beings who are struggling, much like how the religious go to churches to find salvation.

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