The best writers give us truth in its rawest form, and truth isn’t always clean-cut. It’s doesn’t always have a Hollywood ending. It’s raw, ragged, ugly, hilarious and reflective. And if you’re Alain de Botton you capture this firefly in flight and find a way of illuminating it to the world. Alain’s writing rips the layers off the political correctness and politeness we hide behind in society, particularly in Britain and gives us a naked photo of ourselves-amplified under a spotlight.
In his most recent book, Religion for Atheists, he casts his voice loudly, netting in the large audience of humans that might fall into the category of “other” when it comes to religion. Or not. Or somewhere in between. That’s the beauty of this book. It’s category-less. In the writer’s own words, we are encouraged to sample from the “buffet” of religions and cultural practices and tailor them to our fancy. Whether you hold a religion and are open to others, or don’t subscribe at all, or are fixed in your beliefs, this book will speak to you. In fact, at one point I started turning down the corners of each page in the book when something resonated with me (sorry Alain). After I noticed that about every third page was being turned down, I stopped for fear of ruining the very book I loved. I mean, where else can you read someone willing to discuss wedding presents as condolence gifts for leaving the single life? I get it. It’s all good. I don’t need to stop only on the marked pages. Nearly any page will do.
What I love about his writing is that it is so candid that it is hard to tell if even the author realizes how funny he is. How his quips jump off the page and hit you with a bit of humor followed by an aftermath of reality and reflection. He boldly says it is “hope - with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians, and our planet that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us.” How brilliant. How sad. How true. How Alain. The book weaves back and forth like a racing car, taking us past religious concepts, followed by cultural concepts, then the author’s own interpretations and philosophical comments on life. This hybrid blend of culture-religion can offer us personal vitality if we eat from its unlimited buffet.
The book does not seek to criticize or separate. It does not feel preachy or stuffy. There are no words you need to dust off like an old bible and try to appreciate. Instead, it reads like a map to the best pieces of ancient religion and cultural practices, brought forth into the current year and illuminated for our discussion. The author argues that there is no need to pigeon-hole your life or your views. If you are a Catholic, but want to practice a Buddhist tradition, why not? And vice versa. And I can relate. While I think that all beings have souls, I am still not above smashing the life out of a cockroach should it cross my path. What category do I fall into? Read on to decide.
If you find that you have ever questioned the idea behind religion and been drawn to other practices that don’t fit neatly into a church pew or doctrine, you will love this book. It’s liberation and education all at once. And much like Oxford, it is rooted in tradition, but entertains a myriad of international cultures and religions. Unlike Oxford, it allows you to pick and choose what works for you and discard the rest. A bit like eating off a glamorous plate of food adorned with decorative accents, then leaving the cherry stem on the side of the plate while you digest the mains.
You can never stop sensing a bit of a romantic turned pessimist turned optimist that Alain conveys in his writing. An openness to seek, a bravado to make statements, and yet a neutrality to be an impartial “messenger” for other authors’ voices. This is the brilliance of the book, and the brilliance of Alain de Botton.
You can also read here about Alain's talk on this book at the Oxford Literary Festival, April 2012.