Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Who Needs Religion?

When my university colleagues in the Department of Philosophy dropped religion from the curriculum as a major some years ago, I told the dean, who was sympathetic to my concern, that no self-respecting university should be without a religion department.

His concern, of course, was with numbers: few, if any majors; courses under-enrolled meant lack of funding and so religion must go. Some on the faculty, being agnostic or atheistic, probably cheered because they believed that religion historically has done more harm than good and is actually at the root of most of the world's conflicts and problems.

But this trite old argument, still widely heard, is to ignore the enormous contribution of religion to civilization. It has from ancient times provided humankind with a source of meaning and of community as well as wisdom and ritual and beauty. It has been there to remind people of virtue. Can one find happiness without being and knowing the good? Ask Aristotle.

Or, more easily, ask Alain de Botton, the often clever Swiss pop philosopher who resides in London and writes engaging, witty books like the one I enjoyed a decade ago:
How Proust Can Change Your Life (even if I was not entirely persuaded that he could). He has now come out with Religion for Atheists, which apparently tries to show that the secular skeptics should borrow a few ideas from religion---notions like kindness, tenderness, community, and "making our relationships last."

Calling himself a "gentle atheist," de Botton has great respect for the intellectual contribution of religion, by which I think he really means the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in contrast to the best-selling atheists of recent vintage like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have attacked religious belief as folly. So I welcome this effort to emphasize the positive aspects of religion in our history and culture, including its impact on art.

De Botton apparently believes that religion is capable of changing the world as few secular institutions can, and it helps us emotionally so that we feel less alone. The notices for this new book also promise some practical ways in which religion, like reading Proust, can change our lives. I will have to see the specfics, but I am doubtful how serious the author, who respects religion but not devotion or dogma, really is.

What intrigues me the most about this original approach to religion is that it counters the view of many that the childish creeds of faith are the mark of simple minds, as if Augustine and all the other great religious thinkers were intellectually deficient. The usual opponents of religion don't read theologians or religious philosophers yet conclude that believers are dim-witted. Try reading Karl Rahner or Charles Taylor. Or Pascal, the great 17th century mathematician, scientist and author who had the humility to mistrust the intellect and to respect the wisdom of the heart.

I hope de Botton convinces his secular readers that religion provides the only effective means of cultivating the values we need. But I wonder how useful or practical religion can be when shorn of its supernatural doctrines, its vital heart. Who needs a religion made up of spiritual platitudes?

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