Religion for Atheists?

Pastors and other Christian leaders regularly worry about the state of fellowship in churches. They worry that visitors don’t feel welcome. They worry that members don’t know one another. They would be amazed to read that, to an atheist, churches look like a model for community that secular society needs to learn from. They would not, however, be comforted by the conclusions an atheist draws from the experience of worship in a Christian church. Alain Botton, writing for the Wall Street Journal, explains in a recent article 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.” In other words, Mr. Botton believes it is possible to achieve the communal experience churches enjoy without the most important element of the community – God.

The quoted statement is the premise of Botton’s entire article based on his new book, Religion for Atheists. His statement reminded me of James Clavell’s famous story, “The Children’s Story.” In that story, the nation had been conquered and a new teacher, provided by the conquerors took over the classroom. The new teacher never disparaged the nation that had been conquered, not in so many words, but little by little, she so thoroughly disparaged the notion of fidelity to that nation that the children became completely confused. In the end, they cut up the flag so everyone could be equal and have a piece of it. Botton cuts up the whole idea of religion and suggests using some little pieces of the idea, reshaped and put together in entirely different ways. He completely excises that problematic element people call “God.” According to him, secular society could use the lessons in community life exhibited by churches to transform secular society. I felt just as battered by this thesis as I felt by “The Children’s Story” when I read it during the Cold War era in America.

Botton proposes a new secular utopia that starts in a restaurant. He is completely mesmerized by the meaning of meals in religious faith. In his mind, changing the way people eat in secular society can transform people from strangers to intimate friends and achieve something no church even suggests can happen – people who don’t know each other will simply reveal their deepest wounds to complete strangers on cue. The cue comes from a book each diner in his utopian “Agape Restaurant” will follow to the letter. “The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics.” (This quotation appears near the end of the article.) Botton actually believes that when one stranger asks another stranger, “Whom can you not forgive?” the response will be honest and deep truth. He believes that his Agape Restaurant could mandate who eats with whom and mandate their conversational topics, and even the duration of the meal. He actually believes that people would pay to eat there and to follow all those rules.

This proposal misses the whole point of community as we know it in churches. Nobody tells anybody in churches what to say. He thinks the liturgy of the Catholic Church and the Haggadah of a Seder direct the same kind of interaction he is proposing for his restaurant. He does not understand that liturgy and Haggadah are not about getting individuals to divulge secrets to each other. The individuals gathered in community in a church or at a Seder celebrate something much more than the gathering itself; they celebrate what God has done, and what God is doing, and what God will do. The gathering does bond people together in love, but it would be nothing without God. The fellowship shared in worship settings is only one aspect of the fellowship of believers, and the writer correctly infers that the relationships of believers outside the sanctuary have something to do with what goes on inside, but his Agape Restaurant puts a human being in the place God enjoys in Christian faith. The utopia envisioned by Alain Botton actually creates a human dictatorship which sounds completely oppressive rather than copying the free, vibrant fellowship that grows out of shared faith. The Agape Restaurant sounds like a prescription for brainwashing to me.

Some people may see the first few words of Botton’s article and conclude that he might be taking a first step toward faith by trying to learn something from the great religious traditions of the world. He is absolutely not doing that. Read the entire article. He is, in fact, deconstructing the traditions built on a life of faith and attempting to reconstruct something that will reshape the culture in lockstep with legislative and political transformations of civil society. He specifically states that the restaurants would be the first step “to humanize one another in our imaginations,” a step to be followed by “legislative and political solutions to cure society’s ills.” His proposal is not the benign speculation of a philosopher. It is the same proposal Satan made to Jesus during Christ’s temptations.

Here’s how Satan put it:

The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “ (Matthew 4:8-10)


Satan offered Jesus a deal: You can have your religion and anything else you want, as long as God isn’t in it. Botton is proposing that people worship people. He is proposing the development of a culture that submits to some human being as if that human being were a god. That is implicit in a model that says this person has the right to tell everyone else what to talk about and what to think. This human being is accountable to nobody, as near as I can tell from the proposal in Botton’s article. This is a terrifying proposal, whether or not you are a Christian.

Think about Botton’s thesis. Do you see anyone suggesting ideas that mirror this proposal? Do you think people want to be told what to do and how to think? Are you a Christian? Do you wonder why, despite the presence of so many Christians in society, we have not spread salt and light broadly enough for Botton to be affected by it? That might be the big thought question. We all want our testimony to be true, and we all want to live a testimony the Holy Spirit can use to bless people. Do we need to examine ourselves and examine our testimony? Are we shedding God’s light in a dark world?

God loves Alain Botton, whether Botton knows it or not. I pray that somebody, or more than one somebody, may introduce him to the God who gives life to the fellowship Mr. Botton so fervently desires. He is a deeply lonely man. May Alain Botton soon meet the One who loves Alain enough to die for him.

4 thoughts on “Religion for Atheists?”

  1. Thanks for your most generous welcome and your openness for dialog. I must say with your clarifications I now see you were welcoming of de Botton who was admitting a common need for fellowship, but your central point is that without God, one would not have the full benefits of the fellowship he (or myself) seeks. I can respect this view as a God is very important to you (presumably necessary for eternal salvation, etc). You stress the need to spread God’s light (or word), and this is being disregarded by de Botton.

    And yet the benefits of fellowship depends on the quality of participants, independent of God’s presence. We should be able to agree that both are necessary.

    You and I, and whatever neighbors were with us, I strongly suspect, would enjoy our mutual company at a community supper. You would suggest an invocation to invite God to our gathering. I would have no objection. From there we would share our dishes, and conversation. We’d likely form friendships, and in so doing a sense of community. While in leaving, perhaps God’s light would not have shone in myself as much as others, we would still have had a pleasant, and I think de Botton’s point is, a necessary, exchange of fellowship. Let’s agree to disagree on the level of importance that God’s presence has. Perhaps we can agree that a sense of community and fellowship also depends on its own participants, independent of which, or any, God they believe in. For atheists who believe in the potential for good in humans. This is a core belief we hold very dearly, and one we think we share with theists.

    As a last example, consider the decision one goes through in picking a Christian church. Presumably all churches share a presence with God, and yet there’s a great difference between them based on the members.


    1. I am convinced that you and I and other people could sit down to dinner and enjoy one another. I love gathering with friends and strangers to share food and conversation. In my world, two people on a beach with a sandwich and a glass of wine can quickly become a festival. That is a wonderful thing. Your description of a shared meal was not nearly as regulated as Botton’s Agape Restaurant.
      Botton tried to borrow the idea of a liturgy by imagining his book with the rules for conversation. I reject that idea, because it makes somebody a dictator in a simple gathering. Your description of a meal and friendship and even disagreements sounded quite congenial. Botton’s description sounded like regimentation.

      I think the real issue is that he wants to borrow the effect of God’s presence without inviting God. That is why he needs somebody to write a book of rules.

      You are right that Christians believe in the potential for good in people. We believe that loving God and loving people are the most important qualities we can develop.It is precisely because God created us with that huge potential for good that he was willing to pay the price through Christ’s death and resurrection to redeem us and break the grip of the evil that dwells in humans . He loves us so much that he doesn’t want us to be captive to that evil. He wants to set free the good gifts with which he endowed us at creation, the very good that you hold dear. God holds that good very dear as well.

      As for the differences among churches, I think of them like the differences among flowers. I am glad there are varieties of flowers, and I am equally at peace with varieties of churches.


  2. I’m so glad you stopped by and took the time to comment. I can’t absorb all your suggestions, but you certainly have offered some thoughtful insights.
    I wlll need to think about your statement that atheists have faith that there is no god. That is a very novel way to speak about atheism. I’m willing to say that the language does capture a concept that has been wandering around in the back of my mind for a while. Thanks.
    My major difference with your comments lies in the very issue atheists faithfully reject: God himself. I can certainly agree that churches and Botton’s restaurant are not the only two ways to have community, but when I read Botton’s comments, I come away with the firm conviction that he wants to dictate exactly how community is formed. Churches do not do that, even though he alleges to have borrowed his idea from them. I reassert my point that the community he observes in liturgy and ritual meals is completely about the work of God in the community. Absent God, all those words and forms are empty.
    As for your comment about the various viewpoints of people who frequent churches, you are absolutely correct. And that is a good thing. We welcome people of every point of view. An atheist may reject God, but God never rejects the atheist. God is always ready to meet anyone wherever he (or she) may be. God loves questions. God loves complaints. That is because God loves people. God loves you, too.
    I hope you will come again, because I enjoyed your visit.


  3. Atheists and theists both have faith. One is not without faith and the other with faith. Atheist have faith that there’s no god. They have faith in the potential for humans to do good. They have faith that humans (and perhaps others unknown) are the universe’s emergent consciousness, it’s eyes and voice. They have faith that doing unto others, as we would want them to do unto us, will make for a better world, from which we can all work together to make it even better. As with theists, atheists are only rarely anarchists; something perhaps misunderstood by theists.

    I don’t think Alan Botton (who I don’t know personally, nor have I read any of his books) is suggesting that an atheist church would preach to atheists; telling them what to believe (or not to believe). Instead it’s a sense of community, belonging, fellowship, and participating in some rituals like eating, of which he speaks. I think he’s a bit envious of churches’ ability to provide this for their followers, and he’d like to see this option for atheists. It can be a cold, hard world out there, with everyone only worried about making money (or at least it can seem this way, at times).

    We all have to deal with loneliness. Botton strikes me as someone who’s pretty balanced, so your claim that’s he’s a “deeply lonely man” seems probably unfair, but I would say you’ve struck at the core feeling that would make an atheist long for fellowship. We don’t have a god, certainly not a personal one with unconditional love, and therefore we need a support structure to fill this void. An atheist has family, friends, but all to varying degrees, some more so than others. Theists and Atheists need support. Why is it ok for one, and not the other?

    It’s time for theists to start to understand atheists. I would challenge you to admit that your church already is peppered with atheists/agnostics, seeking community and fellowship. Perhaps they believe in a god creator, or not, but are not otherwise interested in the mystical parts of religion. They want to get to know their town’s people, and to participate in the mutual helping of the community. Botton isn’t saying anything new. I fail to see this as anything but desirable, whether from an atheist or a theist point of view.


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