Religion for Atheists: Alain de Botton

“it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.”

“we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

“Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.”

“The benefits of a philosophy of neo-religious pessimism are nowhere more apparent than in relation to marriage, one of modern society’s most grief-stricken arrangements, which has been rendered unnecessarily hellish by the astonishing secular supposition that it should be entered into principally for the sake of happiness.”

“a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in society and thence, with the help of a close friend, undertake to nurture and educate the next generation under divine guidance.”

“they assign us eternally youthful, attractive and virtuous deities to shepherd us through life, while reminding us on a daily basis that human beings are comparatively humdrum and flawed creations worthy of forgiveness and patience, a detail which is apt to elude our notice in the heat of marital squabbling”

“Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizons.”

“we are inherently flawed creatures: incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always slowly dying.”

“Such walls would be particularly consoling were they able to afford us a glimpse of what in Jerusalem is reserved only for the eyes of God: the particulars of the misfortunes of others, the details of the broken hearts, dashed ambitions, sexual fiascos, jealous stalemates and ruinous bankruptcies that normally remain hidden behind our impassive fronts. Such walls would lend us reassuring proofs that others too were worrying about their absurdity, counting how few summers they had left, crying over someone who abandoned them a decade ago and dynamiting their chances of success through idiocy and impatience.”

“Instead it suggests that it is not for us to know why events occur in the way they do, that we should not always interpret pain as punishment and that we should recall that we live in a universe riddled with mysteries, of which the vagaries in our fortunes are certainly not the largest or even, as we will become aware if only we can look at matters from a sufficient remove, among the most important.”

“Fragile, limited creatures that they are, how can they possibly understand the ways of God? he demands. And given their ignorance, what right do they have to use such words as undeserved and unmerited? There are untold things about the galaxy that mankind cannot properly interpret and upon which, therefore, it ought not presume to impose its flawed logic. Human beings did not bring the cosmos into being and, despite their occasional feelings to the contrary, they do not control or own it. God tries to shake Job out of his preoccupation with the events in his own life by drawing his attention to the immensity and variety of nature. He evokes a sweeping vision of the totality of existence, from the foundation of the earth to the tracks of the constellations, from the heights attained by a hawk in flight to the labour pains of a mountain goat, in the hope of instilling in the man from Uz a redeeming sense of awe.”

“reminded of the scale of all that surpasses him and of the age, size and mystery of space. God’s whirlwind, and the sonorous, sublime words he speaks, excite a pleasing terror in his audience, a sense of how petty are man’s disasters in comparison with the ways of eternity, leaving Job – and the rest of us, perhaps – a little readier to bow to the incomprehensible and morally obscure tragedies that every life entails.”

“rather than try to redress our humiliations by insisting on our wronged importance, we should instead endeavour to apprehend and appreciate our essential nothingness. The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation.”

“Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place. It surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history, and the achievements of our fellow humans as the measure of all things – a grandiosity that plunges us into continuous swirls of anxiety and envy.”

“Religion is above all a symbol of what exceeds us and an education in the advantages of recognizing our paltriness”

“Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives”

“Among the cannier initiatives of religion, then, has been the provision of regular souvenirs of the transcendent, at morning prayer and the weekly service, at the harvest festival and the baptism, on Yom Kippur and on Palm Sunday. The secular world is lacking an equivalent cycle of moments during which we too might be prodded to imaginatively step out of the earthly city and recalibrate our lives according to a larger and more cosmic set of measurements.”

“we would do well to meditate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometres which comprise a single light year, or perhaps on the luminosity of the largest known star in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light years distant, 400 times the size of the sun and 4 million times as bright. We should punctuate our calendars with celebrations in honour of VY Canis Majoris, a red hypergiant in the constellation Canis Major, 5,000 light years from earth and 2,100 times bigger than our sun. Nightly – perhaps after the main news bulletin and before the celebrity quiz – we might observe a moment of silence in order to contemplate the 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy, the 100 billion galaxies and the 3 septillion stars in the universe.”

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