Alain de Botton is an atheist who has a new international best selling book about what he likes about religion. Even though de Botton does not believe in religion, his book argues that he wants to ‘steal’ religion’s best features, because atheism does seem a little empty. I know this sounds rather far fetched but the public is literally buying it in very large numbers.
De Botton admits that atheism has never been very good at building community the way a local church does. He admits that when the faithful face trial and death, they seek not only the counsel of their faith but they seek the support from their pastor or priest. He admits that religion has that ability to put humans in their place: to make us, in the good sense of the word, seem small; to recognize that the world does not revolve around us; and that there is a higher purpose and calling. Finally de Botton admits that humans are not very nice to each other most of the time and that religion has played a part in advocating morality and encouraging people to be more loving and kind.
In many ways the popularity of de Botton’s book is more interesting than the book itself. Atheism and agnosticism have had the philosophical and popular ascendency for much of the last hundred years in the western world, but for many a desire within continues to yearn for something more. We medicate with alcohol and drugs, but awake hung over rather than satisfied. We fill our lives with things in a vain attempt to ease the emptiness, but only accumulate clutter. We obsess about sex and relationships which not only fall short of our desires, but often remind us of our personal failures. We dream that a politician will rise up and fulfill our hopes, but their rhetoric is somehow never matched by reality.
De Botton may well have noble desires, but religion without belief seems a little like promoting the virtues of marriage without an understanding or belief in love. Stealing religion without belief may be as useful as a smart phone without a network. How can a community of faith work if no one has faith? How can you face trial and death without a belief in the afterlife? Why would you bother praying if you knew there was no one to hear? Ultimately humility is bound up not just in us feeling small, but experiencing that smallness next to the vastness of God.
Real believers will weep at the continued stubbornness of humans to resist the God who we cannot see, but continue to sense is there.
“The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.” Psalm 14: 2
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