I 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