Know your enemy, ran the headline in a recent editorial of New Scientist: "To rule out God, first get to know him." God, New Scientist seems surprised to find, is still everywhere. Try as we might to reduce the Almighty to the small "god" promoted by secularists, we can't seem to rid ourselves of Him.

Perhaps, it suggests, we've been looking at "god" the wrong way. The new science of religion shows religious belief as more subtle and interesting than atheist prejudices have allowed. Belief seems to be ingrained in human beings - which is just as well, the magazine concedes, for "without it, we would still be living in the Stone Age".

"Religion is deeply etched in human nature, and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle."

Indeed, despite confident predictions of religion's imminent demise, "religion is much more likely to persist than science".


The magazine takes it as a given that we should all want to loosen religion's grip. This, despite evidence "that a belief in god or gods does appear to encourage people to be nice to one another. Humans clearly don't need religion to be moral, but it helps".

In his new book Religion for Atheists, the British writer and "committed atheist" Alain de Botton makes the case for not throwing religion out with the holy water.

De Botton starts from the assumption that religious belief is "of course" nonsense, but departs from the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens in finding that religion is "not entirely daft".

To the contrary, religion's ability to "promote morality [and] engender a spirit of community" can be quite useful, provided one jettisons God from the equation.

De Botton wants to have his unbelief and religion, too. It is possible, he writes, to be an atheist and still find religion "sporadically useful, interesting and consoling".

Religion "teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober".

He argues that atheists shouldn't have to give up on the benefits of religion - the "music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths" - just because they don't believe in God.

"Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of [religious] practices and themes. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. 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...


"In giving up so much, we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind - and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm."

De Botton's religion envy puts me in mind of Richard Dawkins waxing lyrical on the King James Bible as a cultural and literary treasure - "not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian" - while lamenting the religious uses to which Christians would insist on putting it.

"I think it is important to make the case that the Bible is part of our heritage and it doesn't have to be tied to religion," Dawkins has said. "It's of historic interest, it's of literary interest, and it's important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource."

Who is hijacking whom, exactly?

In his Guardian review, the literary critic and English literature professor Terry Eagleton holds that it is De Botton who is "hijack[ing] other people's beliefs, empty[ing] them of content and redeploy[ing] them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure".

Eagleton suggests the author is the latest in a long line of reluctant atheists, "people who long to dunk themselves in the baptismal font but can't quite bring themselves to believe".


The tradition of reluctant non-believers who are nevertheless happy to promote belief in others goes back a long way.

Voltaire, for example, "rejected the God of Christianity, but was anxious not to infect his servants with his own scepticism. Atheism was fine for the elite, but might breed dissent among the masses". Eagleton adds that liberal-capitalist societies, "being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer".

De Botton is right, though, about religion running counter to the libertarianism that dominates current political thinking.

Billboards enjoining people to be nice to one another might well have a positive effect, but they don't have quite the life-changing transcendency of a religion that expects its adherents to be ready to lay down their lives for a complete stranger.

As Eagleton points out, De Botton's insipid brand of spiritual therapy "is not quite the gospel of a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate".

De Botton's atheistic religion looks rather uninspiring and small. It lacks a certain numinous something. God, perhaps.