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Alain de Botton (Handout photo)

'Well-ordered souls'

Books | Atheist notes atheism's failings, Christianity's wisdom

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

Some evangelicals think we must sue for peace with rampaging New Atheists, but their extremism may already have peaked.

Five years ago I debated Christopher Hitchens and was amazed at his insistent defense of an untenable position: "Religion poisons everything." Now Pantheon, a left-wing publisher, has come out with Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists (2012), which notes, "The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed."

De Botton sees religions not as poison but as "repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life." Atheism, he suggests, fails in providing real community, education, and perspective. It does not foster kindness or tenderness. It produces pessimism and fails to create a true appreciation of art, architecture, and important institutions.

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Christians, of course, should not spend our time defending religions in general, because some are poisonous. What about Christianity? De Botton calls the Christian church "uniquely clear-eyed and unsentimental about earthly reality. It does not assume that politics could ever create perfect justice, that any marriage could be free of conflict or dissent, that money could ever deliver security, that a friend could be unfailingly loyal or, more generally, that Heavenly Jerusalem could be built on ordinary ground."

He admits that "the secular world has been too sentimental and cowardly to embrace" such an understanding: "It is the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realized on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley, and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind."

De Botton notes a good reason for suffering: "Christianity hints that if our bodies were immune to pain or decay, we would be monsters." He eviscerates secular education, noting the inadequacy of standard secular lectures when compared to deeper understanding: True Christian education "has no patience with theories that dwell on our independence or our maturity. It instead believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable." That's the mood we must be in before true learning takes place.

De Botton also praises a Christian understanding about the deeper purpose of art: "To guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls. It is a mechanism whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of." He creatively proposes that museums not group their works of art in galleries organized by centuries or genres, but by the emotions about which they hope to teach: He hopes to see separate galleries of suffering, compassion, fear, love, and so forth.

Yet, for all his good analysis, de Botton ends up sticking to his atheism and following the 19th-century French sociologist Auguste Comte, who tried to create a religion of humanity with its own rituals and saints, such as Cicero and Goethe. De Botton proposes fellowship dinners and other ways to build community, but he's asking readers to drive cars from which the engines have been removed.

De Botton, from a Sephardic Jewish family, was born in Zurich but resides in London. He argued in a BBC broadcast last August that pessimism is the key to happiness, because the gap between aspirations and reality will kill us unless we reduce our worldly aspirations as Christianity does. True-but Christians are cheerful pessimists because we are optimistic about resurrection.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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