ALEXANDRIA, La. – For many atheists, a belief in a supreme being is not only foolhardy, but it also is dangerous. According to these disciples of unbelief, the religious doctrines that flow from the idea of God – particularly from the adherents of Christianity – are chiefly responsible for most of the ills on earth.
Alain de Botton does not agree with many of his fellow atheists on the subject of religion. In fact, the Swiss-born, London-dwelling author believes many teachings found in religion hold the keys to a better world.
In his most recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, de Botton, “suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it – because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies,” according to a description on Amazon.com.
In de Botton’s view, religion was “invented to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill….”
The first of the two needs de Botton acknowledges is “the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.”
De Botton believes the second necessity of mankind is “the need to cope with the 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.”
In grappling with these needs, de Botton attempts to deal with age-old questions for which the belief system known as atheism has no real answers.
“The real issue is not whether or not God exists,” he writes, “but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”
Religion for Atheists is de Botton’s attempt to create a moral construct for a society where God does not exist – amorality that he believes is a necessity based on human need.
“The premise of this book,” writes de Botton, “is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.”
Apart from Religion For Atheists and perhaps because of the book, de Botton has authored a brief “Manifesto for Atheists” where he espouses 10 virtues that would help better society,: Resilience, Empathy, Patience, Sacrifice, Politeness, Humor, Self-Awareness, Forgiveness, Hope and Confidence.
De Botton’s list is far from original. The Bible exhorts us to embrace theses virtues. However, I find one articulated by de Botton particular interesting, especially against the backdrop of atheism. In explaining the reason for hope, de Botton writes, “Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.” Remember, according to de Botton, one of the needs of humans is to cope with the many pains of life, such as the death of a loved one and the realization of one’s own demise.
I commend de Botton’s attempt to be respectful to religion – Christianity in particular. However, it is precisely here that I believe his ideas hit a snag.
When one rejects the existence of God, the reality of a Creator is utter nonsense. Hence, all that is in the earth, including human beings, is the product of matter or energy shaped by chance. There is no other explanation for the atheist.
So, if man is nothing more than a creature that has won the “evolutionary lottery,” why does he need hope? More precisely, how does one convey hope to a being that has come into existence purely by evolutionary chance?
What hope does atheism offer the parents who find their infant lifeless in its crib, a victim of SIDS? What hope does it offer a person dying of cancer?
For hope to have any meaning at all it must be anchored in something. For the Christian, hope is rooted in a God who loves fallen mankind and offers eternal redemption. The visible manifestation of this hope is found in Jesus’ righteous life, sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection.
A creature shaped by chance really has no hope or meaning, other than to live life the way he or she sees fit.
If there is no God, why should I care about someone’s subjective list? Why should I be polite or patient? Why should I forgive? If life is short and it is all I have, then why should I care about anybody but myself? After all, we live in a world that insists truth and virtue are subjective and relativistic. Hence, one man’s virtue can well be seen by another as weakness. So if I can get what I want by being rude, why be polite?
This is not to say there are not good and moral atheists by a society’s standard. There are. This also is not to say there are those who claim belief in God and who do not follow the virtues articulated in the Bible. However, for the followers of Christ, there is a constant standard and accountably.
The ultimate “why” for the follower of Christ for seeking virtue lies in the fact that he or she has been redeemed. The sincere Christian understands that he or she has been transformed by God’s love. Gratitude for this transformation results in a desire to live out the divine virtues articulated in the Bible.
In de Botton’s view, it seems we might well be devolving. By “inventing” God and the virtues so helpful to the individual and society, it would seem our more “primitive” ancestors had a greater insight into human psychology and sociology than do we in sophisticated modern society. Either that, or they knew God.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)