Opinion on Opinion: What Atheists Can Learn From Religion

“there is one thing about which Botton is correct. I cringe at the thought of listening to a religious sermon”


I am always excited when CNN features articles and topicals on atheism. It means that atheists are becoming more mainstream and acceptable, that our opinions matter, and our voices are being heard. An interesting opinion piece by Alain de Botton was featured on CNN’s ongoing coverage of TEDTalk Tuesdays. In his article, “What atheists can learn from religion,” Botton discusses the influence of religion in civil accomplishment and how society has benefited from select religious ideas.

To his credit, Botton does not challenge the fundamental atheist disbelief in religious dogma. In fact, he embraces it. But he acknowledges that religions have been a part of some of the most successful achievements in history, such as compulsory education and architecture. As an atheist, I also acknowledge the positive achievements of religious institutions.

But I disagree with some of Botton’s generalizations and assumptions about atheists. Particularly the following.

We have grown frightened of the word morality…..We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.

Atheists do not shy away from morality. In fact, atheism embodies the belief that one does not need to believe in a god to be moral. We teach our children right from wrong without employing a church’s assistance. I like to believe that atheists have a sense of and also instill in their children their own value and how to preserve that value, how not to be exploited, and the reward and satisfaction of hard work.

Atheists do enjoy art, music and dance. I reject his idea that atheists don’t believe art should be uplifting or impart moral lessons. Quite the opposite, people are naturally drawn to things that improve their mood. I personally am most impressed and moved by the sensuality and intensity that is ballet. And just because we pride ourselves for our reasonability does not mean we are not open to the lessons that artistic expression can teach us and our children about ethical behavior and morality.

Botton’s assumption that we don’t go on pilgrimages seems provincial. If one defines pilgrimage as a journey made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion, then Botton is correct – atheists don’t generally do that. But if he accepts the broader definition – that a pilgrimage is a journey undertaken for a definitive purpose, as to pay homage – I tend to disagree with his statement. A pilgrimage does not have to have a religious meaning. Many people will travel back to the place they grew up, where their ancestors came from (getting back to their roots, so to speak), or to great places of historic significance such as Stonehenge or the Coliseum (to put ones shoes where XX did). These secular experiences can be highly uplifting and significant to the seeker.

Atheists can certainly build temples – to science, to philosophy, to anything we want. To say atheists can’t do something betrays the purpose of atheism. Finally, to state that atheists have no mechanism for expressing gratitude is just patently untrue.

What religion has been most successful in doing is assimilating human nature by integrating it into religious traditions such that its dogma is not rejected by its followers. Atheists should not attempt to reject our own human nature in an attempt to repudiate all religious influence. To do so would be highly unhealthy. We should acknowledge instead the great influence of human nature on religion. After all, human nature created religion.

But there is one thing about which Botton is correct. I cringe at the thought of listening to a religious sermon.