Where he gets it wrong, in my view, is that he both overestimates and underestimates religion. In terms of building community, encouraging contemplation, shared mealtimes and useful hints for living life he concedes too much ground to religion, and overlooks all the ways these things happen every day, in schools and universities, museums and community centres, online and down the pub. He seems to take as read the ancient canard that atheist life lacks meaning, community or joy. Likewise our secular shelves are groaning with “guidance”, only it’s wrapped up in the sugar coating of plot and character and excitement, and disguised as a novel or a film or a book of poetry. For those who like their life lessons complex and find them in art that is rich and ambivalent and disturbing, the literalism of Religion for Atheists will be welcomed with as much enthusiasm as any other self-help manual promising to heal your life, find your soul mate or help you drop two dress sizes.
Where de Botton underestimates religion is in its power as narrative. Religions have almost unlimited resources of drama; the Holy Books are a huge repository of conflict and nastiness – a vengeful, capricious God, hubristic kings, duplicitous apostles, poor, innocent, suffering Job. They’ve got the devil, hell and apocalypse. De Botton thinks these all function as simple lessons, in how to be good and avoid evil, but they are far more subtle and variegated and fascinating than that. The idea of divinity itself, while we may reject it as a fact, is a hugely rich area for exploring what it is to be mortal. Which is to say that the philosophical ideas of religion are powerful – they continue to hold sway over a majority of the world’s population, after all – and we cannot strip them so easily from the material forms in which religion has manifested itself.
Nor should we want to. To try and remake religion with the bad bits taken out is like trying to remake Star Wars with no Darth Vader and Tom Hanks as Emperor Palatine. And, anyway, hasn’t that already been tried by the Church of England? The world of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a very polite, ordered, wholesome sort of world but it’s a bloodless book, muesli for the mind. He wants a kind of Health and Safety heathenism that transcends conflict. But religion represents something bigger, darker, with which those of us who are non-believers need to struggle. It’s a dialectic, and a necessary and productive disagreement.