I refer to myself as a ‘recovering Catholic,’ and yet I can’t stay out of churches for long. I enter as a tourist – admiration for architecture seems to be genetically coded into our extended family – but I linger to breathe deeply, clear the mind temporarily, and just be. While I may have discarded most of the religious tenets from youth, I still find precious moments of peace in these so-called holy spaces.
Here in his penultimate title, the ever-irreverent Alain de Botton recognizes that power of religious architecture, and suggests that even better would be to create secular temples with similar goals: “they would all be connected through the ancient aspiration of sacred architecture: to place us for at time in a thoroughly structured three-dimensional space, in order to educate and rebalance our souls.” Build and we will come, for sure!
Beyond holy architecture, in the vein of ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ de Botton wants to “reverse the process of religious colonization: … to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.” While fundamentalists might be ready to issue a fatwa, de Botton’s message is hardly threatening: ignore the dogma and let’s find ways to be better people living better lives.
Divided into revealing one-word chapters – “Kindness,” “Tenderness,” “Perspective,” and so on – de Botton uses his usual charming erudition to reclaim the best of religion: “many of the problems of the modern soul can successfully be addressed by solutions put forward by religions … Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” Ready to learn? Choose the page; while Kris Dyer’s excellent narration can’t be faulted, you won’t want to miss the photos and illustrations – many of them are downright illuminating, ahem!
Of de Botton’s mutiplying shelf of philosophically questioning, cleverly revealing treatises, Religion is perhaps not among his strongest – it’s lighter in research and depth than many of his others. His choice to draw on just three religions (“primarily Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism and Buddhism”) feels a bit as if he’s avoiding that other elephantine monotheistic faith (did I mention fatwa?); his explanation as to why he chose those three among the “world’s twenty-one largest religions” doesn’t quite convince. That said, if you want to tickle and expand your brain, you can never go wrong with de Botton. Trust me; have faith.
Tidbit: Make sure to check out de Botton’s “A Manifesto for Atheists: Ten Virtues for the Modern Age” in full. While you’re waiting for the page to load, here’s an abridged version to get you started …
- Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
- Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
- Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
- Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
- Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
- Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.
- Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
- Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.
- Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
- Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.