What the Secular World Can Learn From Religion

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Lessons from Alain de Botton's new book, Religion for Atheists

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The tension between secularity and religion has endured for centuries, infusing academia and science with a strong and permeating undercurrent of atheism. But if we can divorce the medium from the message, there might be some powerful communication lessons secular movements could learn from religious ones. That's the premise behind Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, a provocative and thoughtful new book by modern philosopher, prolific author, and School of Life founder Alain de Botton, who recently made a passionate case for redefining success.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, inspire travels, train minds and inspire gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of both religious and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

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Particularly noteworthy are de Botton's insights on what education and the arts can borrow from the formats and paradigms of religious delivery, from why the sermon is more effective than the lecture to how engineering visceral encounters can help draw power from art.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.

We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

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The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.

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Sample the book with de Botton's compelling talk from TED Global 2011:

A sermon wants to change your life, and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition."

Religion for Atheists is the latest in de Botton's prolific portfolio of thought, including the excellent The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Essays in Love, and The Consolations of Philosophy.

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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credits: Knopf

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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