An Atheist’s Perspective

In his TED talk titled “Atheism 2.0,” Alain de Botton challenges atheists to take a more serious look at what religion and religious people do well. As a religious person myself, I think he offers many astute observations. If you have twenty minutes, watch his entire talk here:

He states that today, in modern society, there are a lot of atheists saying not just that religion is wrong, but that it’s ridiculous. He does not agree. Alain de Botton says in this talk that you can struggle with some of the doctrines of the Church but sill love Christmas carols. He thinks the secular world is full of holes, that the world has secularized badly. He argues that it is healthy and necessary for atheists to be attracted to the ritual and moral side of religion. Finally, he goes on to address the things that he believes religious people do very well that all people can learn from. I want to take a look at some of his points as a theist because I think theists can have the same tendency to secularize badly. It is popular to say, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” to fall short in our practice or not confess our faith in our increasingly secularized world.

Education- Alain de Botton says that the religious do education well. Religious people believe that education makes us into nobler, better human beings. Secular education has tended to become just about transferring information and data, but we as humans need more than that. While lectures convey information, sermons offer guidance, morality and consolation. Religion puts people on our knees where we can admit to needing help.

Repetition and Ritual- Hearing something once does not mean we will remember it. Religion builds calendars around seasons, celebrations and ideas so that we will have annual reminders of what is important. There is ritual created around important concepts so that these concepts will move from our minds into our bodies through action. There is an connection between belief and ritual, between mind and body. A physical action backs up an idea. Then, in structured time, we repeat actions over and over again in synchronized, communal encounters.

Oration- Alain de Botton points out the importance of oration in religion that has been lost in our modern secular culture. When people speak well, in an inspired way, we give thanks to what is bigger than us that inspires us.

Art- Art is important, and religious art is not afraid to claim what it is about. Art reminds us of what there is to love and what there is to fear. It is a visceral encounter with our beliefs, propaganda for good things.

Community- Religious people group together and form institutions, which has advantages. These groups of people are multi-national, highly disciplined and collaborative.

Alain de Botton also mentions other aspects quickly like travel– that religious people travel well and atheists could learn something about meaningful travel through the study of pilgrimage. It is good for me, as a theist, to hear what an atheist respects about the intentionality with which I choose to live my life. He says that the religious culture is subtle, complicated and intelligent and is not fit to be abandoned by atheists. His openness is appealing to me, and his respect for things like oration and community challenge me to live well as a religious person and be overtly grateful for what the structure of religion has to offer me as a human being.

What aspects of religion do you respect the most?

Are there things that atheists tend to do particularly well that theists could learn from?

Do you agree with what Alain de Botton points out as strengths of religion? Are there any that we need to focus on as the world around the Church becomes more secularized?


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