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Happy Birthday to my brother.

April 2, 2012

First, Happy Birthday to my brother. His birthday is April Fools Day, but nevertheless, I forget it as often as I remember—perhaps it’s the relief of getting through mine just days before.

One of my stepfathers had his birthday Halloween, so he and my brother never forgot each other’s.

Birthdays are at the secular end of the holiday continuum, usually more sacred than national holidays, somewhere near the Hallmark holidays such as Mother’s Day, but to some as sacred as any religious holiday.

Religious holidays serve a variety of purposes, from prompting introspection and devotion to nudging social and communal activities. For many, these things are what religion is all about.

For some, religion is about Truth with a capital T, but that’s a razor’s edge few can stand on, not least because it can be painful.

I recently read “Religion for atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion” by Alain de Botton in which he examines the marvelous success and utility of religions in ten topical chapters.

The first sentence states: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true …”

He basically makes a public service announcement to readers by saying “This is a book for people who are unable to believe in miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrubbery …”

Nevertheless, I would say a believer could find the book fascinating because of de Botton’s analysis of the successes of religion.  He almost makes the case “for” religion by the time he’s done with these chapters:

Wisdom without doctrine, Community, Kindness, Education, Tenderness, Pessimism, Perspective, Art, Architecture, and Institutions.

I should declare that Alain de Botton is one of my favorite authors, and this may explain the umbrage I took at a review in the New York Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago.

The review by columnist David Brooks was modestly accommodating, but Brooks could hardly wait to turn the review into a column about C.S. Lewis and Augustine, setting up straw men against whom to find de Botton insufficient.

I’ve found other reviews, too, which, even if flattering, seem to miss the point. Yes, de Botton does propose some secular analogs of religious practice, and yes, they seem pale and hollow in comparison, but the strength of the book is found in the bulk of it—which is de Botton’s careful analysis of what works.

It’s very difficult to propose wholesale a modern alternative to, say, the Catholic Church. The proposals in the book, such as one that sees the university inculcating not just subject matter but wisdom, are attempts to shape what these secular equivalents might look like, but they are the very first words on the subject, not the last.

I think de Botton is more aware of this than any reviewer, since the typical reaction seems to be a kind of reflexive gasp, as if de Botton had just set his cup of tea on the family Bible, which hasn’t been opened in generations.

Most important in the book is the insightful discussion of what in traditional religions has served humankind so well. I think even established religion could benefit from this review, especially in the U.S., where our obese and glutted society could use a poke and a word.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” the only religion left was a diluted form of Buddhism. This strikes me as especially prescient for a sc-fi novel in 1950, but I sense the same assumption that underlies criticism of de Botton’s book—that  human religious fervor arises from without rather than within. “Religion for Atheists” necessarily, and respectfully, disagrees.

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