Tuesday, September 23, 2014


(Sorry it has taken me so long to post this - moved house and forgot which computer it was on.)

In a previous post I reported I was reading Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, a book which seemed to be the answer to many questions about what it is that strikes me as special about the country of Mexico, especially the religious aspects of the country.  Trained as a sociologists I kept thinking I saw “community”, that thing which sociologists felt had been in decline since 1850.  Indeed Auguste Comte (1798-1857) the French sociologist, who first applied the name to a field of study, made significant contributions to our understanding of societal developments before attempting to create a religious-like program which would accomplish what religion had done previously. He saw community disappearing and wanted to rebuild it without religion.   F. Toennies (18551936) made sociology’s concerns clearer when he developed the concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, the former term usually translated by “community” or a society held together by emotional and personal relationships.  In this state  we come to know each other more holistically, we tend to be more open and authentic and we feel more obliged to help others.  The later is modern society where contractual relationships (at work, shopping and so on) bind people together.  We live in a less charged emotional world, always try to present our best face and don’t really know those we even call friends.  In the latter phase there is much less constraint on the ego and too often it “runs amok”.  It creates the “me” generation and many of the other ills of society; the self is homeless and the ego becomes dominant and no one want to tell you when your behaviour is inappropriate since “nobody is the boss of me”.

Friederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) coined the phrase “God is dead”, among others, and with this phrase encouraged us to abandon a belief in God.  Religions were non-rational and humans, having created God, were capable of developing a rational basis for living, for morals, for relationships and so on.

Into this context comes the book Religion for Atheists.  It begins by suggesting the most boring question to ask is: is religion true?  It is very simple to suggest that God and many of the stories of the Bible, or of any religion, do not stand up to the test of science.  If instead we accept that God is dead and the various unsupportable claims made by religions are dismissed:  What is left of religion?  Is it of any use?   To often the answer draws upon another concept from Nietzsche, “the bad odour of religion”, and we tend to reject everything. Even a hint of morality turns people off.  All religions and their 2500 years of thinking about the human condition are dismissed.  Nothing is left and we are on our own.  We would rather believe the most recent research by psychologists than consider issues humans have thought about for centuries.  We tend to believe that the past teaches us nothing.

Botton suggests that all religions have two broad goals:  First “the need to live together in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.  And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to death of loved ones and to our own decay.”  God may be dead but these two important needs continue to haunt us.  Botton attempts to scavenge religious books to separate the non-rational from the helpful, suggesting there are many ingenious concepts with which to understand and perhaps solve the ills of secular society.  If self-help books can be helpful why not 2500 years of religious thought.

The Catholic mass is a beginning point.  The mass works to breakdown many of the social divisions which separate us.  People of all work, income or status groups come together to share, listen, sing and pray together.  We are reminded very quickly that we are all in this together, we want the same attention and love from God.  Second, we all listen to a very moral language and its lessons are repeated over and over.  Third we are surrounded by the great moral figures of our history in the form of statuary. Fourth, the rituals of the occasion are often repeated and the audience plays an important role, responding to requirements to pray, to sing and to recite very common lines.  All of these help unite people and the repetition drives home simple but important messages.  Fifth, the very building in which the mass is conducted has been intentionally created to make us look up, be quiet and to realize how small we are.  Our egos are all put in their proper place.

Botton includes a whole chapter on architecture and I was struck by the debate which emerged during the reformation.  Protestants were incensed at the money spent on Catholic churches and the extensive use of art work, statuary and so on.  Protestants argued that the bible alone could work just fine even if in a simple home surrounded by the squalor of the growing industrialization.   Catholics argued that we could only be uplifted in a beautiful location and they went on a building spree to illustrate their beliefs. It does seem that the Protestants were wrong on this issue and we now all appreciate the value of beautiful building, parks, streets and the value of untrammelled nature.  All of these things appear to heal the spirit and protect it from the roughness of many parts of the community and of life.

The author also takes us back to 1792 when revolutionary France separated the state from the Catholic church.  Three days after this declaration the state opened the Louvre gallery, filling many of its rooms with objects stolen or confiscated from church buildings.  In later years the theft of artifacts from churches further afield filled the halls.  The museum was supposed to perform the same goals as the church but how were we to look at these works of art?  Were we to pray?  Simply adore them?  What?  Rather than to learn moral lessons from art we were expected to learn facts.  This latter objective is often revealed in the museum-gallery itself -  the development of art from 1650 to 1750, the art of painter X, the development of the style y.  Lost of course is the moral point of view, we no longer look at a piece of religious art and find our self melting away and becoming part of the “other” - leading to opening ourselves, becoming less egotistical, more compassionate, thinking about the world, etc.  Instead we are urged to examine the use of brush strokes, of colour, of perspective.

Similarly when society set out on its secular path the universities said they could do what churches had previously done, particularly through the departments of humanities.  Through the great literature of the world they would expose us to the human condition and to solutions to very human problems - grief, relational problems, our own vulnerability and failures.  An examination of most universities however, shows that these grand ideals have been replaced by academic issues.  We are introduced to surveys of the development of narrative, the style of 3 modern authors, the use of metaphor in literature, and so on.  Lost is the moral instruction promised and we are left with a number of valuable books which we may read once and are left to gather our own lessons from the material.  We are presented with more books than the great authors ever dreamed of and yet our souls remain untouched.  If it were the church, students would read less, reread more often and read with the intention of exploring the moral dilemmas inherent in the stories.

Botton does not confine himself to Catholicism, drawing useful lessons from Judaism and Buddhism.  One example from Judaism is the day of atonement when you are required to review the past year to identify instances when you hurt someone.   You are then required to seek them out and apologize.  The receiver is obliged to appreciate your thought and effort and to forgive.  In this way small hurts are dealt with before they become disruptive of relationships.  In Buddhism we find the practise of meditation where one is led through a process of breathing, focussing on elements of the body until the ego is silenced if even for a few moments.   With repetition the ego is tamed and one is more open to your own needs and to the  needs of others.

If all of this can be generalized it is by seeing that these religions see the self (or our ego) as a source of a great many problems.  They have each found useful solutions in order to reduce the barriers between people, to take us out of ourselves so we can appreciate others, to impart moral lessons, to imagine the suffering of others, to talk about our feelings and vulnerabilities and to live and work together. All religions realized another important part of the human condition:  we all have best of intentions but forget our commitment shortly thereafter.  This is most clear to us on January 10 when our New Year resolutions are broken and put away until next January.  Religions are built around practice so that we continue to hear that voice in our head - “keep pedaling”.

Reading this book has given some clarity to why it is that I do not believe in God and at the same time get weepy when I witness community events and religious ritual in Mexico.  I have always thought it was about more than the God thing.

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