Atheists and agnostics often dismiss religion’s tenets and rituals as being fashioned to exploit the human need for such things. Our fear of death is assuaged by the promise of an afterlife. Our despair in the face of injustices that we cannot correct is resolved by the assurance that there is a spiritual magistrate in the great beyond that will set things right. Our need for “community” in an increasingly alienating world can be satisfied by formally congregating with others who share our beliefs. The meek shall inherit the earth, the first shall be the last…it all sounds perfectly, cynically, designed to capture our interest and loyalty by appealing to our weaknesses and fears.
In Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion (Pantheon, 320 pages), Alain de Botton makes the case that though our weaknesses render us vulnerable to institutions that would exploit them, we nevertheless benefit from having them addressed and catered to, and the secular world has all but abandoned us in this regard. For example, we calendarize every aspect of our external lives—we set aside time and give ourselves reminders and structure our days to address business appointments, birthdays, exercise classes, but leave our inner lives unstructured. We don’t “pencil in” time for meditation at all, let alone define which time slots we will devote to contemplation of specific aspects of our spiritual lives, like kindness, pride, love, etc. As with many goals, chores, and endeavors that we leave to chance, our souls’ exercises not committed to the diary go neglected. (continue reading)