Friday, March 30, 2012

Guest Post — A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Alain de Botton

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 by Bethanie Blanchard - Crikey Weekender

Guest Post by Julian Novitz
Alain de Botton would like us to be happier. By ‘us’ I mean people like him, and me, and probably you as well (though I realise that’s a pretty big assumption to make in the second sentence of this review): readers who approach life with the gentle, possibly naïve hope that books, art, architecture and other nice things might somehow make it better. Alongside pleasure and enjoyment, it’s often tempting to assume that great literature, visiting art galleries, or engaging with profound thought and beauty will have some kind of lasting beneficial effect on us, though we’re often vague as to what that might be. De Botton’s novelty as a popular thinker is that he is constantly preoccupied with tackling this question. Rather than taking the value of these activities as preordained, he wants to understand and explain their utility. What is it about them that will improve our outlook and attitudes? How can they make us happy?
With this question in mind, de Botton has already demonstrated How Proust Can Change Your Life, offered us The Consolations of Philosophy, laid out The Architecture of Happiness, and delivered other works that examine the causes of unhappiness and offer ideas as to how they might be addressed. At his core, de Botton is a very good self-help writer, perhaps the best. He is witty, eloquent, erudite and occasionally moving. He aims not just to make literature and philosophy accessible to his audience, but to also demonstrate how they are useful, encouraging his readers to develop deeper insights into their own lives through engagements with art and architecture, writers and thinkers. However, while de Botton’s almost constant focus on practical utility is fundamentally well intentioned it is also limited, and this becomes problematically apparent in his latest book Religion for Atheists.
The subtitle of Religion for Atheists gives us a clear indication that de Botton is applying a very similar approach in his investigation of religion. The book is ‘a non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion’ and de Botton’s contention is that even if they dismiss the ‘supernatural’ components of religious belief as false, atheists can still benefit from engaging with certain carefully selected elements of religious thought and practice. Doing so will help them to build a stronger sense of community, manage their relationships, overcome negative feelings, and gain a healthier perspective on their lives. De Botton sets out to demonstrate, firstly, that atheist thought towards religion has been constricted by its tendency to focus on the veracity of religious beliefs or the destructive effects of dogma (an approach perhaps best exemplified in recent years by works like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great) and, secondly, that elements of religious practice can be used as models for secular rituals, customs and institutions that may satisfy unfulfilled needs in the lives of atheists. De Botton largely succeeds with this first goal, but is generally less convincing when it comes to the second, to the detriment of the book as a whole.
Full piece at Crikey Weekender.

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