Book Review: Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists

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‘The underlying thesis is not that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often securalized badly – inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have unnecessarily surrendered some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faiths.’

Reading Ages: 13+ 
Category: Non-Fiction
Overall Rating: ★★★★

Through his philosophical meanderings, Alain de Botton has created the perfect comprehensive guide to tackling religion as an Atheist: essentially, Religion for Atheists does exactly what it says on the tin. Or, rather, cover.

That is not to say, however, that the book is bad; quite the contrary, in fact. Often, books on philosophy and morality draw you in with something interesting and exciting but altogether completely unrelated to the predominant topics within them. De Botton’s reasoning is easy to understand and well-phrased, including interpretations, evidence and explanations through similes and metaphors.

However, while phrased and presented articulately, there are pitfalls to it which have reduced my evaluation.

First of all there is the abundance of pictures. At first, this seems like a nice gesture – a helping hand de Botton has lent us to keep the reader’s brain engaged during reading with small moments of gazing at a picture of a Roman temple, or a 16th Century fresco. But as we progress further and further into the book, they become more of a hindrance. I found myself getting irritated by pointless captions, either lifted from text I had just read, or describing that a picture of a lamp-lit port at night is a picture of a lamp-lit port at night. There was that, too – the more I read, the more images I found which seemingly had little additional value to the writing. If a picture is demonstrating a source, or giving a perfect example of a complex idea being outlined in the text, then I am in no way against it. However, I was getting very intense feelings of page-filling.

Despite this, however, the images were the very worst criticism I could find. The text was nicely, painstakingly cut up into very small, individual ideas and subject matters, tackled concisely and carefully. Sometimes the prose felt a little interrupted and bitty, but overall, it made it simpler to follow. One problem that did come across was writing style, though. Taking into account that it was a book of philosophy, I knew that the language would be complex and theoretical, and I was not wrong. Alain de Botton consistently maintains a sophisticated use of the English language: and herein lies the problem. Often, it felt forced, as if it had been strongly advised that he did not slip into a more colloquial, less privately-educated form of writing. The small sections where he allowed a few contractions to edge into the prose, it instantly felt more agreeable and accessible, rather than cold and separate. If there had been more moments of ‘interaction’ between author and reader, I think my overall impression would have been higher.

In conclusion, Religion for Atheists is worth a try, at least. Philosophy books, or even just Non-Fiction, may not necessarily be to your taste, but de Botton often captures true, raw human psychology in short, sharp sentences that will stick with you long after you’ve put it down. Deserving of four stars for his brilliance, lacking that elusive fifth for presentation.

*NB. I would highly recommend listening to his interview on BBC Radio 4 for additional thoughts on the book. Having heard it myself, it expanded his writing for me and rewrote many of my first impressions.

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