Saturday, March 10, 2012

Religion useful for atheists too!

An unusually moderate take from an agnostic/athiest rationalist.

Could this be the end of 'new Atheism' and a return to sober Agnosticism by the intellectual elite? Don't hold your breath!
It is nice to hear, however, the sane approach to this metaphysical mental exercise still exists; that one may still think freely within the 'free thinker' movement.
Kudos to De Botton for taking a stand against negativity and ant-religious bigotry.
A new title for my book list :)

Religion useful for atheists too, author argues (from 
What if instead of mocking religions, atheists could borrow the very best ideas from? That's the question author Alain de Botton asks in his intellectually challenging but highly readable new book, "Religion for Atheists."
De Botton argues that it's possible for those who don't believe in God to look to religion for insights on everything from how to communicate ideas well, to how to build a sense of community, to how to keep our egos in check.
De Botton, who has published bestselling books on a range of subjects, from the philosphy of love, to architecture, to travel, has little patience for the debate about whether God exists. There will never be an answer to that one, he insists.
But he says for too long, his fellow atheists have wasted so much energy arguing with the faithful about whether the doctrines of religion are "true."
"Atheism has really been put on the map by what I call New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. They've been very successful, but at the same time, they've gone a little far with a negative direction. They've identified atheism with a hatred of religion – not just non-belief, but mockery and loathing," de Botton told recently when he was in Toronto.
While these "noisy fringes of atheism" -- as he calls them -- have dominated the public debate about atheism, he believes there remains "a silent majority" of atheists who don't necessarily hate religion and don't believe that "religion poisons everything," as Hitchens so fervently believed.
"I think there is a middle who think, ‘Look, maybe the doctrines of religion are not that convincing, but Christmas carols are nice, and religions rites of passage are nice,'" he says.
Those atheists who have been so quick to dismiss religious faith have failed to notice what makes religions as institutions so compelling, de Botton says.
There are a number of things that religion gets right, de Botton argues. The way they use music, religious art, and lyricism to inspire, or example. Or the way that every religion in the world emphasizes time for quiet reflection, to take a step back and to be reminded of our need for humility in a greater universe.
All religions have also always focused on architecture, building worship spaces designed for reverence, says de Botton.
"They know that the space you're in really affects your mood. It can inspire awe or calm, or gratitude, or love. The secular world thinks of humans as just brains that don't need that, and that our eyes are not affected. Whereas, or course, we are integrated beings and the space we're in can influence our ideas," he says.
He writes that secularism has been so concerned with personal freedom that it has missed the opportunity to guide humans on how to live.
"So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives," he writes in the book.
He writes that "no existing mainstream secular institution has a declared interest in teaching us the art of living." But he says the keys to the art of living can easily be found by sampling a bit of each of the world's religions.
It is that idea that de Botton knows will anger religious believers. Religions are not buffets where you can pick what you like and discard the rest, they protest. But de Botton argues that the downfall of many of the world's faiths is their insistence that followers "must eat everything on the plate."
"I think you can pick and choose morality from different religions," he says. "I know that sounds bizarre and I'm a fan of commitment. But the idea of having to commit to only one faith seems bizarre.
"I understand it if you're a believer. But as a non-believer, it's no more important to stick to one faith than to stick to one kind of novel as a student of literature. Imagine if you said, "I really like Jane Austen." And someone said to you, "Well, I hope you'll only be reading Austen then, and not picking and mixing and reading (Vladimir) Nabokov next." You would think, well why not?"
De Boton says just as we can appreciate different aspects of Austen and Nabokov's writing, so too can we appreciate the Zen Buddhist emphasis on compassion or the Jewish emphasis on forgiveness.
"Why not pick and mix ideas?" he asks.

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