Religion for Atheists | Book Review

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513723I planned this post for a little while, and it dovetails perfectly in the wake of yesterday’s post about the Op-Ed by Rabbi Sacks (See: A Small Addition to Rabbi Sacks’ Beautiful Article in the NY Times).

The best book I read this year was Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton. The author is a Jewish atheist and apparently a direct descendant of the author of the Lechem Mishnah commentary on Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah. The book is excellent and I highly recommend that everyone read it.

Ostensibly, the book is written for atheists. I think believers should read this book at least as much as atheists should read it. The book tries to show that there is a lot that atheists can learn from religion. Generally speaking, de Botton argues that even if religion is  complete bunk there is a reason it developed, evolved, and flourishes. There are evolutionary needs that religion addresses. Religion serves a very important role in the scheme of man’s existence and when people abandon religion as atheists, they risk losing the very important evolutionary benefits of religion.

In other words, atheists cannot abandon the principles of religion simply because they disbelieve in God. In fact, it almost makes no sense to do that. An atheist must believe that religion evolved as a response to a human need because the atheists does not believe that religion could possibly be a revelation from God since God does not exist according to the atheist! It follows that according to atheists, religion is a human response to some innate needs and its development and success are vital to the success and progress of humanity. Excising religion from the human experience may be necessary for the atheist, but it is fraught with risks. There are elements of religion that are necessary for human development and without religion, those needs may not be met.

So the book then goes on to describe some of the humanistic benefits of various religions. Most of the focus is on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. I found the references to Judaism very fascinating and enlightening. The author even uses some of the harshest victims of atheistic criticism as examples of worthy ideas that should be emulated. For example, he uses mikvah, (yes mikvah!), as an example of attaching ritual and meaning to washing. He says that there is something valuable in attaching bathing to renewal and associating outer washing with inner purity. As orthodox Jews, we may scoff at this humanistic approach to mikvah and it may not be sufficient to allay some of the discomfort that some orthodox Jewish women have with mikvah, but it is refreshing to see a non-believer try to find beauty and meaning in this practice.

Another great example in the book is his section on forgiveness. Yom Kippur is an ingenious way of reconnecting people. It is a day where we are forced to reconcile with our past. Non-believers need such a day as well.

Most importantly, religion creates community and responsibility toward one another. The book mentions Jewish weddings and Bar Mitzvah celebrations as important rituals within a community that should be emulated by non-believers.

The follow up point to each example is that atheists must create analogous practices and rituals for their lives in order to satisfy their needs that are not being met by the absence of religion in their lives. The book proposes cathedrals for atheists, yearly celebrations of bounty, and other corollaries to religious practices for atheists. The proposals are fantastic.

It’s a mostly theoretical book because I don’t see how any of this would every come into being. But if it would happen, I think it would be great for society.

Although the book is written for atheists, I think there is something important here for believers as well. We need to appreciate the depth and beauty of our religious practices. We need to see how to a non-believer many of our practices are useful even if God did not exist. To us, who believe God does exist, the benefits of religion are even greater. We need to appreciate how incredibly useful our religion is to our psyche and wellbeing and we need to thank God for giving us such a wonderful way of life to satisfy those needs. This is the true value of Religion for Atheists to the believer.

I’m not recommending orthopraxy. I am suggesting that the believer take into account all that religion does for the believer in a religious but also in a secular, psychological, and evolutionary way. We need to realize that what we are doing was given to us by God and it goes beyond just ritual or Divine command that has no non-religious benefit. We should acknowledge and explore the potential humanistic reasons for practicing orthodox Judaism.

The book also can serve as a bit of a bridge between atheists and believers. It gives us common ground and serves as an antidote to the Dawkins inspired derision of religion. I’d pay a lot of money to see a debate between Dawkins and de Botton. I also wish the Chief Rabbi would have read this book and incorporated some of its lessons in his Op-Ed earlier this week.

I can’t recommend Religion for Atheists enough. It is a great book for believers and non-believers alike.

Purchase from Amazon here:  Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (affiliate link so if you buy after clicking on the link, I get a small commission)

See also: Rationalist Judaism – Atheism 2.0

  • Holy Hyrax

    Sounds like a good read, but I have a feeling the \”individualistic\” philosophy that seems so inherit in atheism is a tremendous stumbling block to anything he would propose

    • No need to be such a Debbie Downer.

      • Holy Hyrax

        \”just the facts ma\’am\”

        • You mean opinion.

          • Holy Hyrax

            Right. BUT!!, I think it\’s an opinion with weight. In the end that is something atheism philosophy has to deal with (or not). But if not, then that throws a wrench in his grand atheistic cathedral.

            • Tikunolam

              There is no \”atheism philosophy.\” It is simply a statement that a person doesn\’t believe in a deity. A person not believing in the Tooth Fairy tells you nothing about that person\’s philosophy on anything other than not believing in the tooth fairy. Ask a person what they do believe in and you will get their belief system. You telling me that you don\’t believe that Jesus was the son of god tells me nothing about what you do believe in. I don\’t get it HH, how do you still not get this. It\’s been so many years and explained to you so many times.

              • He really doesn\’t get it…

                • Tikunolam

                  I know. HH has been around even longer than you 😉

              • Holy Hyrax


                Yes I get it. But this is a blog. We try to use quick words in between our bosses yelling at us getting things done. So relax already. But what I stand with what I say. Call it what ever you want. But a prominent \”philosophy\” (or use whatever term you want because I know you get so riled up) amongst atheists, just happens to be individualism as opposed to group identity and as so many would call it \”societal coercion.\”

                • MarkSoFla

                  But a prominent \”philosophy\” (or use whatever term you want because I know you get so riled up) amongst atheists, just happens to be individualism as opposed to group identity and as so many would call it \”societal coercion.\”

                  I don\’t think that is true at all. There are atheist liberals (who tend toward \”group identity\”) and there are atheist conservatives (who tend toward \”individualism\”), and there are those atheists in between. If anything, atheists tend to be more liberal and tend toward the government-sponsored type of group identity and group support. And for the humanist atheists, their group is \”the human race\”.

                  • Exactly.

                  • Holy Hyrax

                    But that isn\’t what we are talking about here. We are comparing it to the religious type of group dynamics that lend to rituals and rules to keep the group functioning. Liberal or Conservative atheists don\’t function in the same way religious groups would. An atheist Conservative, for example, is simply someone that is \”individualistic\” in the same sense as an evangelical Conservative, which is, Freedom (liberty) from gov\’t policy. That is hardly the individualism vs group that I am talking about.

                    Calling the human race a group is so broad that the word \”group\” simply becomes pointless.

                • Tikunolam

                  HH, what does a prominent philosophy of \”individualism\” mean to you exactly if not people being out for themselves? Did I need a quote to paraphrase you? And those running to America? It is for aspirations of self, usually economic actually. America is a place where people come to live their individual dreams or to help their immediate families. That is far from some group reason. If you put the group first, whatever that is, you stay in the group and help your group, no? Or do you leave your homeland, your church, to pursue greener pastures? Not that I am criticizing, as Mark said, my group is the human race. I am all for all humans succeeding, having economic, educational and opportunities for freedoms they can\’t have elsewhere.
                  This issue you have with atheists and group identify, where is it from? Just because a person doesn\’t belong to a religious group doesn\’t mean they aren\’t a part of many meaningful communities that propel them to think about the needs of a group. I am a married person, a mom, a foster and per adoptive mom, I am a woman, a social liberal, a mental health professional, a member of my town, state, country and of course a Jew and supporter of Israel. These all make me a meaningful member of many communities, they give me purpose, something to fight for and groups that I am very much a part of. Some of these groups I chose, some chose me. We all belong to many communities in our lives. Religion plays are larger or smaller role in the life of each person. It is not what determines whether we care about the greater good of humans in our group or about humans in general.

                  • Holy Hyrax

                    I fail to even understand what you are complaining about anymore. You say your group is the human race? That means nothing to this conversation. Atheists in all these blogs continuously rile agains the \”group-think\” of religion. That there is too much coercion upon the people. There is no such thing as group-think or specific dictated ritual in speaking of the human race. Nor about communities in general or about being mental health professional. How is this so hard to comprehend? I\’m not even criticizing atheist. I am simply saying what Alain seeks is probably impossible for atheists in the general sense and why get has gotten criticized so much from atheists. You of all people would agree with me that religion sets up a different type of group dynamic that often stifles people in order for it to survive. I mean, just take a look at this post. Maybe you will understand what I am talking about in relation of how these atheists view what they deem as society coercing them to do something they don\’t want.


                  • Holy Hyrax

                    >I am a married person, a mom, a foster and per adoptive mom, I am a woman, a social liberal, a mental health professional, a member of my town, state, country and of course a Jew and supporter of Israel.

                    Alain clearly knows that every atheist is part of what you describe here, and yet…..he is still proscribing exactly what I believe wouldn\’t work with atheists in general. The reason is, being part of a particular address with friends in your state and having a profession is not the \”group\” he is advocating for nor the one I believe wouldn\’t work. I\’m talking apples. You\’re talking lox

  • vladimir

    Alain de Botton and Dawkins in \”Who don\’t believe more\” – a super-dialog. Mental amusement for the believers and festival for the agnostics.

  • Tikunolam

    The evolutionary needs for religion include civilizing people, promoting principles that help people to be pro social and coexist and to implement hierarchies of power (among other things). There is no reason to believe that a person has to cling to religion to maintain pro social ideologies and behavior. If that were true atheists would all be what I guess Holy Hyrax already believes them (us) to be, selfish, self serving, greedy and entirely out for ourselves. Only the evidence isn\’t there. There are whole countries outside of the US where the proportion of atheists in the population is much larger than in the US. Yet it is the American, the most religious of first world countries which are the more notoriously individualistic, greedy, material driven of all. There is no need to go backwards in time. The evolutionary needs of religion are still being met by the concepts of governmental law, communities and humanistic principles that continue to evolve as our moral sensibilities evolve. There is nothing to fear from moving away from religion. This sense of where religion came from and what purpose it served is nothing new. Today\’s religious can understand the need for Greek \”mythology\” the same as today\’s atheist can understand the reasons for currently still held by many religious beliefs systems. We aren\’t clueless nor are we punching for some lawless, uncaring, do nothing for others because there is no reason to society. One does need to believe in a world to come to be a moral, ethic positive addition to the world during their lives.

    • Holy Hyrax

      >I guess Holy Hyrax already believes them (us) to be, selfish, self serving, greedy and entirely out for ourselves.

      How about this T.O. why don\’t you provide a single quote from me that I have said that atheists are selfish, self serving and greedy? I am waiting. Feel free to email me. If not, I await your apology.

      >Yet it is the American, the most religious of first world countries which are the more notoriously individualistic, greedy, material driven of all.

      And yet awkwardly, the troubled parts of the world would sooner come to America for assistance then would run to the Danes and it is our culture that they still love and emulate. So yes, I would rather be part of this American culture that works like hell to earn materialistic dream then be like others that only worry about their vacation time being declared a human right and have others pay the bill

    • kman

      Actually Tikunolam, you are absolutely wrong. America is the most charitable nation in the world Ireland, a nation with strong Catholic values, is number 2. Maybe it has something to do with religion. Like the fact that red states are more charitable than blue states. Sorry to confuse you with the facts.

  • Shragi

    The process of humanizing religion began a long time ago with humanistic reasons being given for various mitzvos or aveiros; I don\’t know that you have to read this book to find reasons or meaning in the rituals we practice.

    • It\’s different when it comes from an atheist who doesn\’t believe that the rules were made and given by God.

      • Shragi

        This sentiment is obviously true for you since you feel it\’s the best book you\’ve read this year, and that\’s great. Hareidim wouldn\’t feel that way though, now of course that\’s neither here nor there I\’m just sayin\’.

  • Yale

    Sounds like I harbor the same views as an atheist and don’t actually believe in a higher power. Seems like it would be a worthwhile read with great insight. Thanks.