In a recent Guardian book review, Richard Holloway considers Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Holloway notes that the picture of the universe that science presents “leaves some of us with a kind of resonant absence” (what Buddhist philosopher David Loy terms “lack”).
Spufford, feeling an existential need for forgiveness, decides that (Holloway’s summary), “Christianity, with its doctrine of unconditional acceptance, makes emotional sense.” He doesn’t know if there is a god, but sometimes “can feel that there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if he’s there.”
One reason for Spufford’s gut-feeling flight to religion seems to be modern atheism’s tendency, in Holloway’s words, “to bundle up all expressions of religion in the same ugly blanket before throwing it off a cliff.” Spufford’s wish for forgiveness can’t be denied, but does it have to lead to “he,” she, or a chorus line of elephants with pink toenails?
No, says Alain de Botton in Religion for Atheists. de Botton poses the question--blindingly obvious once asked--of why humans invented religions in the first place. He answers,
we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.
Taking many of his examples from Judaism and Christianity, de Botton shows how religion has skillfully scratched humanity’s itch for tenderness, kindness and forgiveness, while encouraging our better natures, through myth, ritual, prayer, architecture, art and education. He then—and this is the brilliance of the book--goes on suggest ways that we might satisfy these needs through often similar secular initiatives.
de Botton thinks that current education is failing us by not teaching us how to live. He is one of the founders of The School of Life, a UK institution designed to fill that gap. Another founding faculty member, Roman Krznaric recently gave an interview in which he discusses the school.--Julian