June Book Reviews: Religion for Atheists and Siddhartha

I haven’t read as much as I’d wanted to in June. Boredom and a constant need to scroll and refresh have scrambled my mind. But hey, I still managed to finish two books (albeit short), both of which were focused on spirituality and religion.

Religious Traditions Aren’t Bad, Mmkay?

First up is Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton. He’s a famous Swiss philosopher who’s been making the rounds recently. As a skeptic, I’ve always been cynical of religious traditions, seeing them as a means of control. But Botton argues that’s not the case, and he makes a somewhat compelling argument.

Recommended read. Just keep an open mind.

Before I’d even started reading, I had checked out the reviews. It seemed to me that people were at odds with what Botton was saying. Many have written that he’s mostly singing the praises of religion(s) and has made illogical leaps. To me, it didn’t quite come across like that, though I can’t entirely agree with all of what he had to say.

To clear the air: no, he doesn’t praise religion all the time. Like all things, religions have good and bad sides; atheists firmly highlight the latter. Button argues that religion and religious institutions have practices and traditions that have a lot to offer to the secular world.

One of those practices is ritualistic practices that remove the barrier for egoism. He proposes a new form of a “secular restaurant” where people can all sit together at a communal table and really talk it out. Unlike a regular restaurant, this is a choreographed mass gathering (he uses a Jewish tradition as an example). People have to follow rituals that are designed to forge bonds by breaking egoism and racism. See, people don’t talk to each other in fear of being rebuffed. By removing that boundary, Button argues, people can explore their real selves. Rather than focusing on worldly things, the conversation will be about revealing yourself (‘What’s your greatest regret?’). By doing so, one can form meaningful relationships and have a better understanding of who they are.

De Botton has some interesting ideas, especially regarding religious traditions/practices in the arts.

He takes and applies another similar concept to university and museums. Button writes: “While universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, they remain wholly uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom.” As for museums, he notes how they were once considered “temples for the contemplation of the profound,” but are now lame. People visit the museum to be inspired, but “the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike.”

What’s causing the problem? These places are designed to pass on facts but not what to do with them. It’s a loss in understanding how to transmit wisdom. He argues that religions emphasize repetition and focus on fundamental human nature. Instead of prescribing, secular institutions rely on the audience to make their own connections and put the ideas into practice.

I believe Botton has a point, yet some of his ideas are ludicrous and outlandish. His point on secularism’s failure to impart insight is strong. However, his solution to it feels rather… strange. I can’t quite imagine students shouting out their responses after every lecture. As a teacher, I emphasize repetition a lot in class, which works and doesn’t work. Prescribing goes against modern values, I believe, and society now values autonomy and independence.

But I like his vision of a revised museum, one that’s organized by theme rather than an era. Gallery of Compassion, Gallery of Fear, and Gallery of Self-knowledge are some of the exhibits he believes will lead to us a better understanding of ourselves.

Of course, like everything, the book has its ups and downs. It warrants neither a five nor a one-star rating. Ultimately, you must read the book and decide whether his argument is strong or silly. For me, it was an interesting experience that rode the wave between silliness and profoundness – as all things should be.

Finding the Center

The second book I’d managed to finish was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. A lot has been written about this dubiously popular book, so I don’t really have much to add. But I can give a TL;DR version of it: extremes are bad, mkay?

No, just no.

Hesse’s basic argument is that extremes on both sides of the coin are bad and not spiritually enlightening. The Samanas abstain from experiencing life, missing out on its glory. Materialism indulges in excess, marking it off from the small things that make life so great.

There’s a sweet middle spot in all of this, but that message gets drowned out by the philosophical mumbo-jumbo Hesse confusingly throws out. From what I can understand, he combined Western individualism (“each person has his own path”) with Zen Buddism, resulting in a hodgepodge that’s neither here nor there.

And don’t even get me started on the writing. I don’t know if the original was this bad or if it’s the translator’s fault – I almost stopped reading at times because it was so mechanical and shallow.

If you read Bangla, then there’s a much funnier and more interesting review you should read. Best review ever.

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