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Originally published Friday, March 9, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Book review

Alain de Botton's 'Religion for Atheists'

Alain de Botton's "Religion for Atheists" attempts to rescue the wisdom of faith from the mire of superstition.

Seattle Times arts writer

Author appearance

Alain de Botton

The author discusses "Religion for Atheists," 7:30 p.m. March 16, Seattle Arts & Lectures, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $5-$30 (206-621-2230 or
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'The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.

That's the gist of British writer Alain de Botton's latest book, "Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion" (Pantheon, 320 pp., $26.95), which examines what believers sacrifice when they realize they no longer buy into "miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrubbery."

De Botton, an atheist himself, clearly feels the losses deeply.

"We don't go on pilgrimages," he writes. "We resist mental exercises. Strangers rarely sing together. We are presented with an unpleasant choice between either committing to peculiar concepts about immaterial deities or letting go entirely of a host of consoling, subtle or just charming rituals for which we struggle to find equivalents in secular society."

It should come as no surprise that de Botton, who in past books has explored the impact of architecture, travel, work and "status anxiety" on the human condition, would examine faith and its accouterments in "Religion for Atheists." Much of the book is common- sensical and insightful, as de Botton rescues "what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that seems no longer true."

Whether all of it will resonate with readers will depend on what kind of person you are. If you value privacy and solitude, some of de Botton's points — his regret, for instance, that restaurant diners don't make "meaningful contact" with each other while eating their meals — may prove real stumbling blocks. Contented couples might also be taken aback by his belief, stated in a passage on the virtues of pessimism, that marriage has been rendered "unnecessarily hellish by the astonishing secular supposition that it should be entered into principally for the sake of happiness."

Still, the wealth of knowledge and felicity of phrasing that de Botton brings to his task make for a stimulating read.

De Botton pinpoints 10 spheres in which religion-derived teachings and practices can have enriching effects on a secular existence. Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and other faiths, he feels, all have much to offer in fostering a sense of community, kindness and perspective among nonbelievers. Rites of confession (Catholicism) or atonement (Judaism) are praised as means by which "our pestiferous feelings can be processed."

The spiritual uplift of religious art and architecture is something he wishes were more commonly present in secular art. At the same time he stresses the importance of periodic releases from confining social strata and strictures, citing Medieval Christianity's riotous Feast of Fools as an example.

Perhaps the most interesting point he makes is that "no existing mainstream secular institution has a declared interest in teaching us the art of living." In one flight of fancy, he imagines art museums shedding exhibit categories determined by geography, era and style, replacing them with galleries focused on how art connects with us at a human level.

In de Botton's museum there would be a Gallery of Suffering, a Gallery of Compassion and galleries of fear, love and self-knowledge. It's worth noting, here, that de Botton has actually founded a School of Life in London ( with courses on everything from "How to Face Death" to "How to Have Better Conversations."

Written with de Botton's customary humor, grace and melancholy, "Religion for Atheists" may not always convince. But it always engages.

Michael Upchurch:

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