In his controversial new book, Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton argues that while as an atheist he believes that religion is wrong in its dogma he also believes it has survived because it is right in much of its praxis. In fact, he has angered most of his fellow atheists by going so far as to suggest that it has been so right and has done many things so well that atheists have a lot to learn from the world’s great religions.
While both atheists and religionists tend to think of religion primarily in terms of beliefs, de Botton argues, correctly I think, that it is so much more than this. At the top of his personal list of the “so much more” are such things as the art, architecture and music it has inspired, and the spirit of both community and humility that are part of most religious systems. It is his perspective on community that I find most interesting.
At the core of de Botton’s argument is his suggestion that humans invented religion to serve two central needs: “the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses, and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.” Religion understands this profound vulnerability that is at the core of the human condition and it offers community in response to it. But it still encourages people to know their smallness in relation to self-transcendent realities that are large, powerful and beyond control. This awareness is, he argues, profoundly important because it is the soil out of which humility can develop. Without it, all we are left with is empty arrogance.
I think de Botton is right as far as he goes. And I count it a gift of the God he doesn’t believe in that he can see what he sees and have the personal humility to proclaim it to his congregation of atheists. There is, however, one important part of the picture that he doesn’t see.
Christianity offers something more than community as a response to human powerlessness. It also reminds us that we are not as alone, vulnerable, small or insignificant as we perceive ourselves to be when we operate within the optical illusion that comes with our normal state of consciousness. We think we are alone because we believe we are separate. That is the illusion. In reality, we are in Christ and in him we are part of the whole of creation that is held together in him. Quite in contrast to the powerlessness that we may feel in our isolated self, we are in the service of the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos – the one in whom everything that exists is held in existence and by whom we are commissioned to play a part in the cherishing, healing and restoration of all that is, as it is made new in Christ. And rather than being alone, we are one with everything that is. Our vulnerability comes from failing to know this as our most fundamental reality. This is the great truth that the Christian mystics – from Jesus onward – have always known and proclaimed.