Book (Talk) Diary: Religion for Atheists (Alain de Botton)

I am going to actually read Religion for Atheists, I’m just waiting for my mum and my boyfriend to get done with it.  In the meantime, I’ve been to see Alain de Botton talk about it … twice – yes, I am a bit of a groupie.  One talk was at the Oxford Literary Festival and the other at the Bristol Festival of Ideas.  Here is a picture of my sister (Amy) with the man himself, in Oxford (I’m behind the camera with a big cheesy grin on my face):

In the book, the argument that atheists can borrow from religions is expounded in more detail, but for the talk de Botton concentrates on three areas in particular that religion ‘does’ well.  I agreed with all of the arguments in the talks because I am a super-fan, but these elements stuck with me most:


We forget stuff – what we learnt in Double Science GCSE, or for a degree, or on the radio this morning, isn’t very often still with us by tea-time and definitely not by the time we reach 32 years old.  Religion knows this, which is why it makes sure its followers ‘diarise’ dates and events to go over the lessons it teaches, so ensuring that important knowledge is retained by repetition and can then accompany us as we move forward through our lives (I completely identify with this, it breaks my heart when someone asks me if I’ve read a book, and I have, but when they launch into a description of what they like about it, I find I can’t remember a thing.  That’s partly why I decided to do a book diary post about these talks in fact, as I suspect that I would have forgotten all too quickly, what at the time were illuminating and enlightening gems of knowledge).

2. ART

Captions accompanying works of art don’t tell you what the work of art is about, and if you were to venture such a question you would be considered extremely unsophisticated – you’re not meant to ask what art is for, what it is relevent to, art is meant to exist purely for art’s sake.  In fact, the more blurred and convoluted the meaning, the greater the work of art is considered.  However, art is meant to mean something; it is meant to remind us how to live, it is meant to exalt us, it is meant to remind us of the lessons we know, but often forget: that we should be kind, be courageous, that we should love people.  Religion knows this and perhaps artists too should keep in mind more keenly art’s potency, and ask more often – like religion does before it creates a work of art – what is art for?


Modern society is interested in two things only: firstly, making money and secondly, the pursuit of romantic love.  To this end, small talk in the capitalist/commercial world starts like this:

Q: What do you do?

Whereas, small talk in the religious world starts like this:

Q: What is your soul like? Are you a good person?

Religion encourages people not to look at others through the filter of their status and instead actively seeks to put people together in a room (or a church) who would never normally be in a room together.  Once there, they are encouraged to find out what they may have in common, rather than what they find disharmonious.


I really enjoyed the talks and am looking forward to reading the book itself.  I’m sure that I won’t emerge from reading it unchanged.


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