Religion for Atheists

#1
I've just finished reading Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists, and it was much better than I was expecting.

One of his main observations is that the secular world tends to make a very sharp distinction between children and adults, and so while children need star charts, role models, and constant reminders of how to behave and of what matters in life, adults supposedly don't need any of this any more and so they're on their own now.

But religions understand that we're all fragile, dependent and forgetful. This is why religions are so obsessed with things like days celebrating great people and acts, and with repetition of important ideas in rituals, feasts, and practices. We learn best through imagery, stories and action. Theoretical book knowledge isn't enough.

We often hear from the likes of Dawkins and Harris that religions treat us like children and not like strong, autonomous, independent agents. Alain de Botton would agree with this to some extent, but he sees it as a strength of religion rather than a weakness.
 
#2
I would blame the rise of abrahamic religions for turning the whole idea in to a massive caricature.

Prior to Christianity/Judaism/Islam, religion held a large amount of cultural identity and mixed together with common knowledge and in some cases national pride. People have a way better ability to recall memes and stories than they do a simple table of facts, and memory is extremely important in an era where you can't Google everything. The downside is that someone realized you could weaponize religion, and that's essentially how we ended up here. Since then the very concept of religion is now the bogeyman which must be kept away (or so says a lot of atheists), which means what used to be the receptacle for a nations collection of memes and general ideology is mocked and held away. Unfortunately the useful bits (like naming the planets and coming up with memorable stories about them, which essentially acts as basic knowledge of the local solar system) are lost as well in the conflict, since the usefulness of fiction is completely ignored in favor of statistic sheets that are completely unmemorable.

Christianity for instance has been essentially part of a very large "embrace, extend and extinguish" campaign. Children are no longer taught the method of loci (a very powerful memory technique) because of the Church and the rise of the idea that children are somehow all completely incapable of tying their shoelaces (a notion the old world didn't afford.) People are restricted from doing what they want (because it doesn't benefit the Church). Religion as dealt with by shamanic cultures was about empowerment of people, which is something completely foreign to cultures now which are used to oppressive religion. People are told not to bother vetting the source and just trust what they are told, which causes the negative feedback loop which results in stupidities of taking literature by mystics as literal gospel. It's not religion itself making people weak and stupid, its weaponized religion.

It really is all a shame.
 
#4
:eek: That happens no more in religions than in the "secular world." I'm surprised that anyone actually published such a wonky assessment.
What do you think about his point that the secular world draws a very sharp distinction between children and adults but the religious world doesn't?
 
#5
What do you think about his point that the secular world draws a very sharp distinction between children and adults but the religious world doesn't?
The religious world does at least in some cases see a clear distinction between adults and children. There is the rite of confirmation, which can be considered as part of "coming of age" as a child transitions to adulthood. There may well be analogous or corresponding rites in other religions but I can't offer any specifics.
 
#8
What he's arguing is that in liberal secular societies we tend to think that it should be 'anything goes between consenting adults' and so adults should be pretty much left alone to do their own thing. Indeed, for secular liberals 'paternalistic' is one of the worst things that you can be accused of being, and this just means treating adults like children.

So he thinks secular societies make a very sharp distinction in this sense. Paternalism is absolutely right and proper when it comes to children. We need to make sure they're eating, doing and watching the right things, and we have a duty to ensure that they have a healthy environment with as many positive messages and images as possible. But adults are totally different. They've grown up now and so they can be left alone to make their own decisions and they don't need any help.

He thinks that the religions don't make such a sharp distinction between children and adults, and the reason for this is that they see ALL human beings as fallen, weak, vulnerable, needy, forgetful, etc. In order to flourish, we all need positive messages and images, role models and generally a healthy environment. We can't do it alone. Living a good life is a social and collective endeavor.

I think this is pretty much the point he's trying to make in the book. Basically he thinks liberal individualism is a secular myth, and he thinks the religions have a much better and much deeper understanding of human nature and of how both individuals and groups work.
 
#9
He thinks that the religions don't make such a sharp distinction between children and adults, and the reason for this is that they see ALL human beings as fallen, weak, vulnerable, needy, forgetful, etc. In order to flourish, we all need positive messages and images, role models and generally a healthy environment. We can't do it alone. Living a good life is a social and collective endeavor.

I think this is pretty much the point he's trying to make in the book. Basically he thinks liberal individualism is a secular myth, and he thinks the religions have a much better and much deeper understanding of human nature and of how both individuals and groups work.
Okay. The thing is that - not all that is secular is individualism. There are many stridently anti-religion people and philosophies that are adamant about the benefits of interconnection.

As I see it the idea of humans as "fallen, weak, needy," is one of the most onerous and self-defeating perspectives foisted on the world by some religions. Interestingly enough, though many (most?) Christian denominations spread that perspective, the words of Jesus in the Bible emphasize the opposite. Most religions as generally practiced/taught are more about control than empowerment.

I also think that 99.9% of what is termed "human nature" is little more than conditioned habits.
 
#10
Okay. The thing is that - not all that is secular is individualism. There are many stridently anti-religion people and philosophies that are adamant about the benefits of interconnection.

As I see it the idea of humans as "fallen, weak, needy," is one of the most onerous and self-defeating perspectives foisted on the world by some religions. Interestingly enough, though many (most?) Christian denominations spread that perspective, the words of Jesus in the Bible emphasize the opposite. Most religions as generally practiced/taught are more about control than empowerment.

I also think that 99.9% of what is termed "human nature" is little more than conditioned habits.
Sure, today some religious people are very individualistic and others are more collectivist, and likewise you have both individualistic and collectivist secular philosophies.

But I think he would say that the idea of the atomistic, isolated, self-sufficient, strong rugged adult individual does come out of modern secular thought, and modern religions that have gone in this direction have turned their back on what was good about religion in the first place.

No doubt he would blame the Enlightenment for giving us the myth of the rational, independent, self-sufficient man. As he sees it, religions understand that we are frequently irrational and very much dependent on others.
 
#11
Sure, today some religious people are very individualistic and others are more collectivist, and likewise you have both individualistic and collectivist secular philosophies.

But I think he would say that the idea of the atomistic, isolated, self-sufficient, strong rugged adult individual does come out of modern secular thought, and modern religions that have gone in this direction have turned their back on what was good about religion in the first place.

No doubt he would blame the Enlightenment for giving us the myth of the rational, independent, self-sufficient man. As he sees it, religions understand that we are frequently irrational and very much dependent on others.
Maybe he would say that and blame that. And as I've explained - he'd be incorrect

Also "independent, self-sufficient man" is not the point. Individualism is a valid and IMO correct outlook. There is nothing in individualism that is oppositional to working together or being supportive of each other. But it is based on individuals doing that of their own volition. It is the control paradigm, the idea that any individual is just a cog, that promotes a devaluing of self and others that ultimately results in greater separation.
 
#12
Maybe he would say that and blame that. And as I've explained - he'd be incorrect

Also "independent, self-sufficient man" is not the point. Individualism is a valid and IMO correct outlook. There is nothing in individualism that is oppositional to working together or being supportive of each other. But it is based on individuals doing that of their own volition. It is the control paradigm, the idea that any individual is just a cog, that promotes a devaluing of self and others that ultimately results in greater separation.
You and I, and indeed most people in both the skeptic and the paranormal worlds, have a particular understanding of the history of religion. We think that religion is all about legitimizing the status quo and keeping people down by telling them they're weak and dependent.

He thinks that we are caricaturing traditional religion and that in fact it has a lot of wisdom that modern secular thought misses.
 
#13
You and I, and indeed most people in both the skeptic and the paranormal worlds, have a particular understanding of the history of religion. We think that religion is all about legitimizing the status quo and keeping people down by telling them they're weak and dependent.

He thinks that we are caricaturing traditional religion and that in fact it has a lot of wisdom that modern secular thought misses.
I do not think any religion is "all about" legitimizing the status-quo. Since almost all of them started off as revolutionary movements to think that is IMO silly. What I think is that religions that have become establish are one of the things that have often been used for that purpose.
 
#14
I do not think any religion is "all about" legitimizing the status-quo. Since almost all of them started off as revolutionary movements to think that is IMO silly. What I think is that religions that have become establish are one of the things that have often been used for that purpose.
Yeah, I should have written 'organized religion' there rather than just 'religion'. What we're talking about here is institutionalized religion, and this is what he's defending in his book, even though he knows most of his atheist friends think it's pretty much the root of all evil. He's saying we need the right kinds of institutions, rituals and practices in order to live well, and he thinks it's only the religions that really understand this fact.

He writes somewhere, "To sustain goodness it helps to have an audience." This kind of sums up his thinking. We're social beings and need constant reminders and reinforcement in order to behave well. Organized religion has these messages and symbols embedded in its institutions and practices, and members of the religion are constantly monitoring and judging each other to keep people on their toes.

He's really just calling for some balance. Yes, organized religion is often conservative, hierarchical and authoritarian, but on the other hand we do need institutions, rituals and all the rest, and he thinks modern secular society needs to steal these good ideas from organized religion.
 
#15
Another example he gives is about the public sphere. Secular society says the public sphere must be neutral, and so it's wrong for the government to put out messages telling people what's good or how to behave.

Yet in practice what's happened is that the public sphere is absolutely dominated by corporate advertising promoting consumerism and all the rest, and so it's in no way neutral.

A traditional religious perspective would say that we can't leave the public sphere to the corporations. People need positive messages about helping the poor and treating others as they want to be treated. We already know what's right to some extent, but we need the right kind of environment and incentives to get us going.
 
#16
I suppose my perspective is that there are some people who simply love to control others. For them, traditional religions are a godsend (pun intended). However, there are other ways to control people - such as telling them that their favourite foods are going to make them ill - sometimes without even the evidence, or playing up the risk of catching a deadly disease from sex - remember, they even used to tell kids they would fall ill from masturbation!

The fact is that societies of any kind are very hard to hold together - I guess that is why so many have arisen throughout history, gone through a period of great power, only to collapse. I feel Western democracy may be heading that way. Yes, consumerism has become utterly absurd, but it can flourish in the USA together with fairly strong religion.

I tend to think that a system in which everyone had a vote on everything might work somewhat better. I mean the majority would vote against theft, child abuse and murder, but I doubt if they would be so friendly towards large corporations, and I don't think they would be eager to go to war. Some of them would vote in favour of religious restrictions, but I rather think they would be out-voted on most issues. At least it would be worth a try!

I think there is a fair chance that there is an afterlife, and I can't help wondering how that is organised!

David
 
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