A recent article in the Wall Street Journal featured Alain de Botton’s new book “Religion for Atheists: A Non Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion”, which is to be published in March. His writing is crisp; his observations about the alienation in our culture are astute. Unfortunately, he attributes the missing sense of community, still found in religious groups, to the lack of the familiarity of rites and formulae, and, of course, utterly misses the point.
“Insofar as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centered on the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is, ‘What do you do?’, our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned.
Religions seem to know a great deal about our loneliness. Even if we believe very little about what they tell us… we can nonetheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers… and prevent(s) us from building connections with others.”
Botton especially values the “genius” of the Catholic Mass. The congregation, according to him, draws together dissimilar people from all layers of society. Within the rituals, music and rote of the Mass, they are comfortable with one another; they know when to sit and when to stand and when to kneel. The words of the prayers are known to all. In fact even if one finds oneself among complete strangers speaking a foreign tongue, a Catholic can still participate in the Mass with ease – can still easily fit in and feel at home. The setting of the church, the composition of the attendees, who are not usually of the same race, profession, educational or income levels, yet share a “commitment to certain values”, all contribute to the connections of community. These “values” include acceptance irrespective of class or success.
“As a result, we may start to feel that we could work a little less feverishly, because we see that the respect and security we hope to gain through our careers is already available to us in a warm and impressive community that imposes no worldly requirements on us for its welcome.”
How the Church succeeds in his purview presents a formulaic means of implementing “community” among the lonely, disaffected individuals that everywhere inhabit our population. He does regret the loss of the Agape Meal (Love Feast) of early Christian communities that transformed into the Eucharist of current practice, but still holds that there is some value in what remains. It is good to know that an atheist has some better ideas to improve the liturgy.
He suggests a secular alternative to worship could be concocted and offered to all. A “Temple to Perspective” would set the stage, complete with a “to scale” timeline monument to lift our eyes to the stars and put into perspective our tiny presence in geological and astronomical terms.
His solution would include meals in an uplifting set-aside space, but meals with rules and rituals, such that the participants feel welcome, get to know each other in non judgmental ways and follow set patterns of conversation that do not judge others – sort of speed dating with memorized lines and without sex or wine. Sterile, bleak and contrived come to mind. From G.K. Chesterton: “When men cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”
Personally, I’d prefer the bustling atmosphere of sidewalk tables outside a Federal Hill restaurant (Mediterraneo?) on a summer evening, perhaps bumping into Buddy Cianci, our personable and felonious ex-Mayor making his rounds.
St. Augustine wrote, “Therefore do not understand in order to believe, but believe in order to understand.” Mr. Botton’s perceptions about the existential loneliness, not just of modern man, but of man without God are entirely accurate. The point that he misses is the whole one. Such presumably willful and obstinate spiritual blindness in such an intelligent brain is a great sadness. He wants the faith but resists with impressive agility the Author of it. What faith filled Catholics and others hold in common are not merely “shared values” or acceptance of others, although those attributes are valuable, but a deep, personal faith and relationship with their God. Not superstitious whistling past the graveyard dreams as assumed by those who do not believe, but the intimate relationship of creature and Creator that cannot be imagined or understood by those who have not experienced it and are close minded even to the search.
From St. Augustine’s Confessions
Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.