Back to Basics…being a better agnostic

As you might imagine from a geek like me, I love to read. The result of this is a supply of books that grows faster than I can read them… and I read pretty fast!

Anyway, whilst most of the time these books sit and tantalize me from their designated place on my bookshelf waiting for the day I can crack their spines (Yes, I still read REAL books, they smell better), sometimes one manages to leapfrog the others, it catches my eye, and suddenly I can’t put it down.

With Alain De Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’ this happened. It literally rocked my literary world. 

The premise of the book is that perhaps we (the the atheists among us) should take a moment in our secular lives, to explore and acquaint ourselves with some of the powerful underlying tenets of the worlds great religions and appreciate that, whilst we do not have to believe everything they teach (or preach), we also perhaps do not need to continually convince ourselves that everything about them is nonsense.

I LOVE this idea.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying I was brought up as a Christian and baptized in the Church of Scotland. I attended Sunday school every week as a child, read bible stories and sang hymns when I was told to. Latterly, this dedication lapsed, or was it that when I could choose what to do with my Sunday so many other things came further up the list?. Either way, I gravitated towards the school of ‘I believe in hope and faith and choice but beyond that, each to their own’.

Looking back now, I do feel like through this attitude I lost something along the way. In my desperation to rid myself of the awful ruffles of my Sunday best I forgot many of the lessons I learnt that go straight to the heart of what it means to be human; the power of community, how to take care of the soul as well as the physical needs, the insignificance of my travails relative to the greater suffering of others…. and here I name only a few.

This idea that we can ignore the doctrine and dogma but preserve some of the wonderful celebrations and rituals of religion, adapting them to our modern way of living and thinking struck me as a very powerful win-win for someone like me. Someone a little lost, but not interested in the argument that only ‘religion’ can help me be ‘found’.

As well as making this bold overarching argument, de Botton also looks at this question through the lens of the institutions and activities common to all, irrespective of religion; namely art, architecture, education and even, institutions themselves. For example, how can we curate art galleries to help us understand and reconnect with the whole range of human emotions?; and can we be comfortable with the fact that the art in front of us might be trying to make us feel something or teach us something? Perhaps not. Instead, it seems, we find ourselves in galleries arranged by something so plain as date so scared are we that religious art in particular might Trojan horse religious ideas into us against our will.

Our Education institutions are another example where, de Botton argues, we could really  borrow from some of the successes religions have had in spreading their teachings far and wide. We could have our minds opened not just to new knowledge, but how to think about that knowledge and engage with it regularly and through discussing it with others.  Rather, our secular institutions often simply ‘educate’ us, and as mere recipients of this information we mentally file it away for a test rather than using and testing it in how we live our every day lives.

These are but two examples of the dimensions de Botton explores in his essay book and I could cite many more. Every page turned gave me a small ah ha moment, each little epiphany giving me a little clarity on how I can merge my religious childhood and my atheist present and future. De Botton ends by talking about how we might use some of the good ideas we find threaded through religious teachings and rituals to build better businesses that take care of our emotional needs as well as our physical needs. This resonates with me. I feel I spend far too much time taking care of my physical needs under the illusion this will satisfy my emotional needs, but as I grow older, and work harder, and buy more things, I realise this is not the case. I have been neglecting my soul.

We do not all need to be religious, but we should have a profound respect for religion as a concept, for the hope and connection it gives people – to one another and to hope itself. If I can borrow anything from de Botton’s book is that ironically, in being devoutly agnostic or atheist we may be missing some easy and very non threatening ideas on how we could live and shape our secular societies.

I’ll leave you all with that while I go and re-read my Sunday school stories and ‘steal with pride’.


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