Does Religion Work Without God? (Part 1)

Does religion work without God?

Philosopher and author Alain de Botton suggests that atheists give it a try in his forthcoming book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.”

In an excerpt from his book featured in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, de Botton writes, “My premise is that even those who aren’t religious can find religion sporadically useful, interesting and consoling and should consider how we might import certain religious ideas and practices into the secular realm.”

Two World Views

Although de Botton is an atheist, I appreciate his thoughtful and respectful treatment of religion.  His observations and applications are fascinating to me on several levels.  The focus for this post is to examine how they reveal important differences in the perspectives through which atheists and Christians view the world.   (See my previous posts on Filter Bubbles  and  Filter Checking Filters for thoughts on interpretive frameworks.)

One of religion’s most attractive features for de Botton is the genuine community, blind to differences in race, income, age and social status, that he observes in congregations of believers.  He attributes this phenomena to beautiful buildings, shared liturgies, and ceremonial meals.  He writes, “We gaze up at the vaulted, star-studded ceiling and rehearse in unison the words, ‘Lord, come, live in your people and strengthen them by your grace.’  We leave thinking that humanity may not be such a wretched thing after all.” (Italics mine.)

A Limited View

As an atheist, de Botton must limit the scope of religion to human activity.  If we just put ourselves in the company of others, learn to love and accept each other, teach and live up to a high moral code,  humanity will rise to new heights.   For example, the value of the sacrament of Communion for de Botton is that, “Christians understood that it is when we satiate our bodily hunger that we are often readiest to direct our minds to the needs of others.” I admire de Botton’s good-hearted optimism, and I believe he understands the spiritual significance of the Eucharist for Christians, but as an atheist he is incapable of seeing beyond the human realm.  There is a lid on his thinking.

A Larger View

For Christians, worship is an experience that extends far beyond the church building, beautiful as it might be, and the people in the room, worthy and valuable as they are, to the God who reigns over earth and heaven.  Religious practices like Communion are not about getting along with each other but about remembering Jesus’s sacrifice by which we get right with God.  The lid is removed.  A Christian world view offers a much wider perspective.

My intent is not to critique or condemn de Botton’s atheistic perspective, but simply to recognize that his view of the world is vastly different from my Christian interpretive framework.  If we were ever to engage in a conversation, I’m sure de Botton would resolutely defend his perspective, just as I would stand firm on mine, but if we each recognized and respected the other’s world view, we would have a chance at actually communicating.

What do you think of de Botton’s thesis?  Do you find it difficult to communicate with those who see the world very differently from you?

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”  John 4:23-24

3 thoughts on “Does Religion Work Without God? (Part 1)

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  1. I agree with Sue, if humans were to live more ‘humane’ earthly lives, eternal codes and afterlives would automatically fall into place. And besides, we are on earth right now, so this is where we need to act now, and need to focus on getting it right. Even God when he did live, acted out his divinity towards his fellow humans, and not towards the heavens. (Views are non partial to any religion or non)

  2. It’s funny how some of the simple questions or observations of those outside of Christianity…even as far outside as atheism, shine a light on our little “club” of Christianity. Learning to accept and love each other and living up to a high moral code are part of what the Lord desires for us as believers in Jesus Christ. And far too often, we don’t “get that done.” We don’t accept others. We don’t love each other. We fail to live up to a high moral code….at least not one from the heart. And we fail to acknowledge that we are as desperate for God to change us in our daily lives as we were for Him to save us in our eternal lives. I think that listening to those who oppose Christianity is a very revealing and healthy activity. Remembering Jesus’ sacrifice and appreciating that it was only by this event that we can be right with God, should breed loving and getting along and living up to a high moral code. When an atheist doesn’t see this behavior in Christians, he understandably leans on his logic that it is somehow just up to us to improve ourselves. I pray for me personally, along with my bros and sis’, that remembering Jesus sacrifice and surrendering our wills to His, would yield behavior that would identify us as Christians by our love for one another. And if we are living by and in His love, the high moral code takes care of itself.

    1. As Christians all too well aware of our failings from our vantage point within the church, perhaps we don’t realize the extent to which Christian community is attractive to those outside the church. I haven’t read his book (it’s not out yet), but from the WSJ article, I get the sense that de Botton genuinely admires much of the behavior that he sees in the church. I find that encouraging. The difference is, as you point out, that the source of any admirable behavior is not our own human effort but the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only in Him can we really love each other. Thanks for your thoughts, Sue.

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