De Botton has done us a service by showing why atheists should be friendly to religion. Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don’t believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous.

The fixation on belief is most prominent in western Christianity, where it results mainly from the distorting influence of Greek philosophy. Continuing this obsession, modern atheists have created an evangelical cult of unbelief. Yet the core of most of the world’s religions has always been holding to a way of life rather than subscribing to a list of doctrines. In Eastern Orthodoxy and some currents of Hinduism and Buddhism, there are highly developed traditions that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all. Though not often recognised, there are parallels between this sort of negative theology and a rigorous version of atheism.

Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism. While not compatible with any kind of literalism, atheism of this strict kind is consistent with many varieties of religious practice. The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.

With close to four billion adherents between Islam and Christianity, the two largest religions in the world, Gray is being disingenuous in acting as if modern atheism (which is indeed the rebellious offspring of monotheism, not that that’s relevant here) is somehow myopic in its focus on opposition to such doctrines. You gotta dance with them what brung you. Fundamentalists might be insane, but they’re at least savvy enough to instinctively understand that trading aggressive proselytizing for peaceful coexistence threatens the exclusivity that forms the core of their beliefs, and that reducing their doctrines to colorful folk rituals is a form of domestication that they find intolerable.