What good is religion anyway?

by Karyn Scherer / 03 March, 2012
Religious doctrine might be cobblers, says prominent atheist Alain de Botton in his latest book, but it does have some good things to teach us.

You can’t help wondering – if there really is a God, then how come Alain de Botton is so filthy rich? That’s an assumption on my part, of course, but he does seem to have made quite a name for himself as the brainy person’s Nigel Latta – a prematurely balding intellectual who’s done very nicely, thank you, helping middle-class Westerners put their 21st-century lives into some kind of perspective.

In case you missed them, he has written several best-sellers, ranging from a popular novel about the French writer Marcel Proust to a meditation on the pleasures and sorrows of work. His guide to the great philosophers was deliberately grounded in the realities of modern life. And another best-seller, Status Anxiety, patiently explained why so many of us have so much difficulty keeping up with the Joneses.

Several of his books have been made into TV series. So it’s no surprise, really, that his latest tome addresses “Atheism 2.0”, given that God – or the lack of one – seems to be the latest trend in the publishing world. Largely thanks to high-profile non-believers such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, religion is no longer a banned subject at dinner parties these days. It has even become perfectly acceptable for atheists to come out of the closet.

Naturally, there has also been a backlash from those who insist that God has never been more popular. Two years ago, Economist editor John Micklethwait and writer Adrian Wooldridge published God Is Back, which aimed to destroy the “myth” that civilisation is gradually becoming more secular. That book was hailed by prominent British philosopher John Gray (not to be mistaken for the American author of the same name who explained why Men Are from Mars) as being “utterly relevant”.

De Botton takes a different tack: in his latest book, Religion for Atheists, he takes it for granted that religious doctrine is a load of old cobblers, but argues that religions are far too useful, effective and intelligent to be completely ignored. Instead, he proposes what he sees as a common-sense compromise: that we can learn some very good lessons from religions, such as how to generate a feeling of community, how to better acknowledge our childlike needs and how to restore some order in our lives.

This is not nearly as tedious as it sounds. Among his suggestions is that secular folk should hold an annual Feast of Fools in which we all get to act the goat for an entire day (and night). This suggestion may or may not be linked to his assertion that remaining monogamous is almost impossible. Which may or may not be linked to another idea for a quarterly Day of Atonement.

These suggestions are, of course, not entirely serious. On the phone from his home in London, de Botton assures me the entire book should be considered a “thought experiment”, rather than a manifesto. Even his idea for a temple for atheists “has been taken too literally”, he insists.

But is it any wonder people take him at his word? In his book, subtitled A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, de Botton suggests non-believers don’t need to miss out on all that breathtaking architecture for which churches are so well known; all they need to do is build their own temples. Some would argue such secular temples already exist – and that a fair few of them are branded with the name Westfield – but in any case, de Botton is helping to create exactly such a temple in the heart of London.

Together with a group of property developers, he is hoping to build a 46m-high “temple for atheists” intended to celebrate life on Earth. It has been reported that the tapering tower’s interior will have a narrow band of gold to illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet, while its exterior will be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

It may sound rather Dawkish, but not all the ideas in his book are so high-minded. Proving that the comparison to Latta is not completely ridiculous, de Botton wonders aloud at one point whether we should have star charts for adults. Real stars also feature: he suggests we should stare at them far more often, despite the fact that this seemed to do more harm than good to more than a few astronauts (yes, Buzz Aldrin, we’re looking at you). Another idea is having more communal tables in restaurants, as a way of forcing us to converse with strangers.

He also has a bit of fun comparing the Catholic Church to McDonald’s, while acknowledging that Catholics might be onto something in their worship of a mother-figure. And he gets a few other things off his chest as well, such as taking a swipe at universities and museums for failing to teach people the things that really matter. He suggests, for example, that universities should do away with teaching history and literature, and set up new schools such as a Department of Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge (see sidebar page 24). Likewise, he would like to see art museums featuring a “gallery of compassion” and a “gallery of fear”, rather than grouping master­pieces according to the date they were painted.

To be fair, this could make Religion for Atheists sound a bit more jolly than it actually is. Many critics have not been kind, essentially accusing de Botton of being a pompous prat. And he does rather ask for it when he suggests that “for some atheists, one of the most difficult aspects of renouncing religion is having to give up on ecclesiastical art”. Or his glib observation that if suicidal people spent more time reading the works of French philosopher Blaise Pascal, they might not be so keen to jump off tall buildings.

He has also been accused of not practising what he preaches. There was, for example, that rather embarrassing retort a few years back after a less than complimentary review of one of his books in the New York Times – he wrote on the critic’s blog that “I will hate you till the day I die”.

But in Britain, at least, much of the criticism seems to come from a reverse snobbery, a result of de Botton’s father having been a legendary banker who accumulated a fortune of hundreds of millions of pounds. That de Botton jnr appears to have made his own fortune, and has described his father as a “cruel tyrant” who was a “slightly stricter version of Richard Dawkins”, doesn’t seem to have softened many people’s views.

Nevertheless, it is a slight surprise to discover it’s not reviewers or journalists who have got under de Botton’s skin this time around. Just a week after his latest book was published in Britain, he was far more upset by the drubbing he received from dedicated atheists, who were aghast that he could find any redeeming features in any of the great religions.

“In the UK there is this very, very strong – what’s sometimes been called militant – atheism: people who believe that religion is the source of all evil and that anything associated with it is akin to the plague or something,” he explains. “They are extremely committed to that world view and I think they’ve been upset by somebody who says, ‘I’m an atheist but maybe there’s stuff here we could learn from.’” It all seems “very extreme”, he says, “and I’m surprised and a little bit shocked”.

De Botton puts it down to a post-9/11 phenomenon – a particularly virulent kind of atheism that has taken strength from the fact it has not been shouted down. Interestingly, the reaction from the major churches to his book has, on the whole, been gracious, he says. “It’s weird that this has become an issue where common sense takes second place. [My view] is a majority view but it doesn’t get much airtime.”

If you can forget about his plummy vowels for a moment, he even sounds a little like John Key. Religions, he enthuses, are “really elegant solutions” to the problems of being human, and teach us how to cope with the big issues, such as dying, getting married, living in a community, remembering to feel grateful and putting your life in perspective.

“Religions have all sorts of elegant ways of getting us to those spaces. In secular life, of course, there are mechanisms, but it’s useful to look at the ones that religions have – it brings things into focus.”

He also thinks it’s important “to stay alive to some of that vulnerability that religious belief often carries with it: the openness to mysteries; the openness to some things that could be dismissed as slightly childish.” His book includes a chapter on Catholicism’s “childlike need for a Big Mummy”. This could easily be dismissed as regressive and infantile, he says, “but I think that is what we are as humans. We dismiss it all too quickly at our peril.”

He acknowledges religion isn’t all sweetness and light. “People often feel the need to say, ‘How can you be positive about religion? There are so many negatives.’ My starting point is: ‘Of course, there are these awful things and they are never far from my mind.’ It’s because belonging to a religion is just not an option to me that I feel I can afford to be generous towards religions, without forgetting for a minute the terrible things that have occurred in their name and that they have done themselves.”

So, what does he think of children being given religious education from a young age, then? De Botton says he is against Sunday School-type teaching, but has brought his own children up to believe that “religions are on to some interesting topics”. Which seems sensible, yet still far from the norm in many schools.

British TV critic Charlie Brooker once described de Botton as a “slap-headed, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious”. More recently, a Daily Express journalist surmised that his audience were the kind of people who were too ashamed to be seen buying Chicken Soup for the Soul. Being dismissed as both pompous and a pop philosopher simply shows that you just can’t win with some people, he notes. Nor is he entirely uncomfortable being placed in the “self-help” genre.

“I really believe that self-help is important, but by that term I want to stretch that word so it can come to include Shakespeare and Montaigne, and Dickens and Joyce, and the great movie-makers and the great photographers, and the psychoanalysts, and whatever. These are all our helpers, and that is self-help, not Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra.”

As for the “happiness industry”, it could do with being a little more pessimistic, he suggests. De Botton cheerfully admits to being somewhat melancholic himself, with a “very black” sense of humour.

“I don’t believe that happiness is a very good word or a very useful thing to aim for. I prefer words like fulfilment. I think a good life is compatible with a great deal of confusion and suffering and headaches, and I think the focus on happiness can be in danger of just missing things … I think the best thing you can do to cheer someone up is to say something pretty dark to them, which is something that the happiness movement can’t quite grasp.”

Spiritualism also gets short shrift. There are a significant group of people, he acknowledges, who say they are opposed to organised religion but insist they are still spiritual. “I’m almost the opposite. I’m saying: ‘I’m not a spiritual person, but I’m quite interested in organised religion.’”

So there. As far as the sneering is concerned, it would appear that de Botton’s success is the best revenge. He sounds genuinely delighted with sales so far, and admits to being slightly annoyed that neither the BBC nor Channel Four in Britain has shown interest in another TV series. He believes the subject matter was considered “just too contentious”. So, having already ticked off philosophy, art, architecture, travel, work and religion from the list of Big Topics, what does he plan to tackle next?

“I’d like to write about marriage. It’s something I’m looking at at the moment,” he confides. If I were you, Nigel Latta, I’d get in quick.


I'm a believer

Like many Christians, Rod Oram struggles to express the mystery at the core of his faith.

A decade or so from now, the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope to be built at a cost of $2.4 billion, will let us look back 13.7 billion years ago to the Big Bang, the birth of the universe. Some people will see only stars. Others will see stars – but also glimpse God.

When philosopher Alain de Botton looks at religion, he sees some things he wants to co-opt for secular society. But he denies the source. He’s simply the latest atheist to rubbish religion but concede that it’s handy, and his book Religion for Atheists is derivative. Among his predecessors, Machiavelli said religion was one way to control the rabble; Diderot, a leader of the French Enlightenment, said social unity requires religion; and Matthew Arnold, poet, school inspector and son of the famous headmaster of Rugby School, said Christianity soothes the working classes.

In the same vein, de Botton reckons religion is “sporadically useful, interesting and consoling”. Among other benefits it “teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober” and instructs us in “the charms of community”. Indeed it does. But so can other elements of society; and if you fancy good wine, coffee, music, art, architecture and a host of other agreeable things, the marketplace will provide far better than most churches. If that was all there was to religion, secular competition would have killed it off a long time ago.

But religion is flourishing around the world. Take China: 31% of its citizens surveyed by the Pew Research Centre in 2006 said religion was very or somewhat important to them; there are 100 million Buddhists in the country, according to Xinhua, the official news agency; and by some estimates, Christians outnumber Communist Party members. Given the rapid rise of house churches, China could one day have more Christians than the United States.

So, it seems religion offers us something more than some trappings of civilised society. Could it be God? Nonsense, say the atheists. We buried that ridiculous idea long ago. We moved on to higher things. Yet against their wills, they keep being drawn back to the coffin to check if it really is empty.

Even outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has his bad days. Recently on BBC Radio he was pressed to name the full title of his bible, the seminal book on evolution written by Charles Darwin. Rattled, Dawkins blurted out: “On the Origin of Species … Uh. With, oh, God …” Was that just a figure of speech? Or was it a peek into his soul?

I have some sympathy for Dawkins. You might rattle me as much if you asked me in public to describe the God I believe in. Like many Christians and members of other faiths, I struggle to express the mystery that is the very essence of my religion. And the more science tells us, the more the mystery deepens. Even when the Square Kilometre Array shows us the Big Bang and when biologists create artificial cells that survive and replicate, as they promise soon to do, the origins and meaning of life will remain as elusive as ever.

Yet our existence is shaped and enlivened by believing there is an infinite power – one that transcends our abilities to comprehend and describe it. Seeking God stretches our human limits. Giving expression to God inspires some of our greatest achievements. But if, like de Botton, we make religion God-free, we reduce it to a finite bunch of “good” things we could also find in a Rotary club or music appreciation society. We would lose the deeper connections and the sense of infinite possibilities yet to unfold.

The world has never needed meaning and hope so urgently. We’re failing to solve even today’s social, environmental and economic problems. But they are easy compared with the challenges in coming decades. If 10 billion people are to live even moderately well on this planet, we will have to achieve a scale, scope and speed of change that goes far beyond anything humankind has achieved before.

To do so, we will need strong communities, local and global – ones capable of creating and adopting the immense changes we must make in technologies, systems, values and many other aspect of our lives. Thriving on common sense, common purpose and common wealth, these communities will have the courage to progress and the compassion to bring everyone with them.

God-free religion offers nothing to those communities other than the safe secular bits de Botton plucks out. Although these bits contribute to a functioning society, they are on their own massively inadequate for the tasks at hand. But God-filled religion connects us profoundly with everything in our infinite universe. It offers us unlimited opportunities and a transformative power far beyond anything we humans can muster on our own.

Such faith helps us believe in something far bigger and beyond ourselves; it helps guide us to the heart of complex human issues we’re seeking to solve; and it helps us avoid hubris. As I began to glimpse all that many years ago, my universe suddenly seemed intensely intimate, yet unfathomably infinite. The hope that sparked in me still burns today.

Rod Oram is a former business editor of the New Zealand Herald and an adjunct professor in the Unitec business school.

Scream, pray, freeze

Greg Shand immerses himself in an Indian ashram and finds it has a profound and positive effect.

Instead of your usual early morning walk, run or gym session to get your day going, try this hour-long workout: 10 minutes of blowing as hard as you can through your nose, then 10 minutes feigning total madness, followed by another 10 minutes jumping up and down on the spot with your arms held high, shouting the mantra “hoo” as you land. When commanded to “stop!”, freeze your body however you land, making not the slightest movement for 15 minutes. For the last 15 minutes, relax, dance and sway to Indian music in easy celebration.

Freezing like a sculpture after half an hour of such activity makes you extraordinarily sensitive to your physical reactions and emotions. It’s much more than your heart beating furiously; you sense the blood coursing through your veins, and feelings seem to well up from all over your body. The dancing that follows is magical, as though you’re in a trance.

I know this because I did this every morning for most of a recent 16-day stretch. It sets you up for a highly aware and alert – but also tranquil – day. It is called “dynamic meditation”, as practised in one of India’s best-known spiritual and meditation ashrams, the Osho international meditation commune in the city of Pune, near Mumbai.

Osho has become one of India’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting some 200,000 visitors from all over the world each year. Most are drawn by hopes that after a few weeks or months, they will emerge as more rounded and balanced individuals, and thus better equipped to deal with the modern-day stresses of the outside world.

Osho – or, as he was formerly known, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – was one of the subcontinent’s most colourful and controversial mystics before his death in 1990 at age 58. He has since been lauded by Indian media, along with figures like Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, as one of the 10 people who have most changed India’s destiny, in Osho’s case by “liberating the minds of future generations from the shackles of religiosity and conformism”.

According to Osho, the major barrier to this search for self-discovery is the egotistical mind that rules and distracts most people, and especially Westerners, with its constant preoccupation with personal advancement. Stripped bare, this is really all about ambition, wealth, greed and lust. Such cravings and strivings, he said, can only lead to a state of permanent frustration and dissatisfaction with the relatively ordinary lives most of us are predestined to lead. It also explains why so many people, sensing they are adrift in the materialistic superficiality of modern-day life and its incessant hype, remain deeply dissatisfied with their fates.

The challenge I confronted during my stay is the quest for “no mind”, or a state of meditation that tries to at least contain – and, better still, silence – the mind, albeit temporarily. This, Osho said, opens the path inwards, so you can pay undivided attention and give expression to the true feelings and emotions of your inner “god” or being – which will reveal the true, inherent personalities we are each born with in the interconnected world of Buddhism.

I thought I knew a bit about this when I arrived at the rather-grander-than-I-imagined black marble entrance to the Osho commune after six weeks of travelling in India. I was familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle, the best-selling author of The Power of Now, which also shares the Osho philosophy: to lead happy lives, people have to learn to live in the present, and not waste time and energy dwelling on the past, or being constantly preoccupied with trying to imagine a better future. Tolle’s teachings are also based on techniques to liberate people from the “enslavement of the mind”, and go beyond any particular religion or established doctrine.

So I entered the ashram thinking I should be able to cope with whatever lay in store. But I was not prepared for the extraordinary reality. Once inside the ashram’s high walls in the affluent suburb of Koregaon Park, you discover you are in a five-star resort, with guesthouses, ­restaurants, cafes, pools, jacuzzis, beauty and massage parlours, plus dozens of self-contained meditation centres, all set in 11 sprawling hectares of lushly manicured gardens and parks.

But the centrepiece is the “Buddha Hall”, a pyramid that serves as the commune’s main gathering place and meditation centre, reputedly the largest in the world.

Day one was an eye-opener: as I traipsed along in my new full-length maroon robe, along with hundreds of other maroon-garbed meditators, heading towards the hulking black pyramid towering above us in the early morning darkness, it seemed like a surreal scene from the movie Eyes Wide Shut.

On the first two mornings of “dynamic meditations”, I struggled to overcome my inhibitions and self-consciousness. “Is everyone really going mad?” I would ask myself as I broke the rules and peered around me. But once I let it all scream out, the 6.00am sessions soon became a staple of my day, such was the natural high I enjoyed as I emerged into the daylight.

Other set-piece “dynamic meditations” followed, including an hour-long session in the late afternoon consisting of 15 minutes of full-body shaking, 15 minutes of full-on dancing and 30 minutes of silent meditation. Later, white robes replaced maroon as disciples attended the popular evening meditations, which involved more dancing, followed by a video lecture from the long-dead guru himself. Osho encourages you to bring all your life’s baggage with you. The group meditations and a wide range of intense smaller-group therapies and courses are all designed to make you let go and express your feelings and emotions, good or bad, in a non-judgmental environment.

During my short stay, I did some extraordinary stuff I had never contemplated: like spending 72 hours locked away with 12 other people, eyeballing each other and repeatedly asking in rotating pairs: “Tell me, who is in?” I also did a day-long “breath energy” course, which involved instruction on various intense breathing exercises. That night, I again felt euphoric.

I also did a day-long “fast track to ­yourself” awareness course and the next day an “emotional freedom” course. We spent a lot of time shouting out our emotions and banging pillows on walls, when we weren’t quietly consoling, comforting and hugging each other. Some spent the whole day crying off and on, such were their long-bottled-up emotions.

And I only really had an entrée experience to the world of Osho. The most recommended course is 21 days long, comprising three hours laughing every day for a week, three hours of weeping each day for a second week and three hours a day of silent meditation in the final week.

No doubt many people will find this account of my experience difficult to relate to. Cynics will be dismissive. But it had a profound and positive effect on me – my only regret is that I didn’t stay longer. I’ll leave the final word to one of Osho’s spiritual successors: “Few Kiwis come here. I don’t know why, whether we are off the radar or just too far away. But your country would provide an amazing setting for a meditation commune like this. The trouble is, my impression is most of you Kiwis live in a box.”

Greg Shand is a former journalist and public relations consultant based in Auckland.

University challenge

What is the real purpose of getting a higher education?

Should universities be doing more to prepare young people for the existential realities of modern life? The answer, according to Alain de Botton, is an emphatic "yes". By anyone's standards, de Botton had a fine education. He went to boarding school in Oxford, then the University of Cambridge, then on to King's College London. He then began a PhD at Harvard, before dropping out to write books. But all those years of studying left him deeply disillusioned about the purpose of higher education.

"I'm not bitter, I'm more sad," he explains. "I can see generations and generations of people who have been let down by universities."

He claims to receive half a dozen emails a day from students struggling to see the relevance of what they are learning. "Basically, these are people who look at culture a little bit like I do. They're fascinated by it. They love reading, they love literature, they love art, and they want to make a life for themselves writing, thinking, etc. What they come up against is the stubborn refusal of the modern university system to honour their hopes of what the humanities could be."

He believes too many academics are reluctant to embrace a "therapeutic model" of culture. "Adult life is in sore need of guidance. We don't just reach adulthood and that's it. And one of the major sources of guidance is literature and culture generally … But if you showed up at a university and said, 'I've come to study the humanities because I want to learn how to live', they would show you the way to the insane asylum – it's just not what being an educated person is."

De Botton also sees a deep divide between popular culture and academic culture, which he believes exists in a "self-sustaining bubble". Ideally, he says, universities would be modern monasteries – refuges from the pressures of capitalism, where people can simply think "and do lovely stuff". Instead, he sees institutions forced to serve the needs of "the market" and reeling from funding pressures that have resulted in many departments, such as philosophy, being downgraded or closed.

"I think it's a crying shame … But you can't make a career for yourself in a modern university doing good stuff. Almost all over the world you have to focus on a very narrow area; you have to prove your credentials by being cited in scholarly journals, which is not a proper marker of anything other than the respect of your peers from a very narrow circle. It's a massive wasted opportunity and it does get me annoyed." But he also believes that many academics have only themselves to blame, because they see themselves as guardians of what he describes as a "non-instrumental" culture.

"In other words, they believe that culture should not have applications to daily life and they grow extremely uncomfortable, almost paranoid, at the thought that it could. The word 'relevance' is a hot potato for them. And I explicitly say that culture should be relevant. And that's a very difficult message." – Karyn Scherer


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