Atheists can’t grasp religion’s great mystery

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Evening Standard, January 24th 2011

By Sarah Sands

This is not an easy time to defend religion. Whenever I have done so, the atheist Pac attacks are fast and furious. It seems brave, therefore, of Alain de Botton to come forward from the atheist side to look for the saving graces of faiths.

De Botton is an evangelist for living life in a charming, harmonious, slightly European fashion. The author of Religion for Atheists suggests we remove God from religion but hang on to the centuries of art, culture and common humanity which surround Him. We can roam the many mansions of our Father’s house without having to meet Him.

Rupert Murdoch tweeted at the weekend that he found de Botton’s book “thoughtful and disturbing”. Where there is a vacuum …

It is a flaw for atheists that music, art and architecture inspired by religious awe are traditionally powerful. If you set St Paul’s Cathedral against, say, The Shard, the symbol of wealth and modernity appears bleak. But not everyone can worship in Rome’s Church of San Lorenzo, or even Brompton Oratory. How do you explain faith even without aesthetic enhancement?

Actually, de Botton’s long professional interest in the good life chimes with the debates on the meaning and limits of capitalism. Murdoch’s “troubled” response to the book is a recognition that money and success isn’t enough for peace of mind.

De Botton describes the community of the church. Anyone can enter, everyone is welcome. He compares this with entering a fashionable restaurant.

Seating is competitively hierarchical and there is no need to acknowledge other diners, except famous ones. What seems like a communal experience is exclusive or exhibitionist.

The author also acknowledges that faith equips you better for existence. The facts of life turn out to be religious. How else can you deal with sorrow and injustice? Indeed, our blueprint for happiness, the American model of secular optimism, is disastrous. If you are entitled to success and happiness, what happens if it doesn’t work out?

Consolation matters as much as self-help. Giovanni Battista Salvi’s The Madonna in Sorrow speaks to more people than Donald Trump.

The beauty of religion is that it soothes life’s contradictions. If I were a policy maker I would come down hard on the abuse of our borders or those who play the benefits system, yet I also love the Church’s suspension of judgment in favour of universal love and pity. The apparent muddle over protesters at St Paul’s is simply Christianity.

De Botton ends his book with a rational proposal for remaking the Church without a divine Being. It immediately becomes trite and commonplace. It is the mystery which makes religion so appealing.


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