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Bakunin, Marx and Lenin rejected it because it obstructed socialist solidarity, while Nietzsche hated religion specifically, Christianity because he believed that it had led to ideologies of solidarity such as socialism. Auguste Comte, an atheist and virulent anti-liberal, attempted to create a new church of humanity based on science. In contrast, the French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church.

John Stuart Mill - not exactly an atheist but not far off - tried to fuse Comte's new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little.

Islam vs Atheism -- Oxford University Debate

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion - communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things.

I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith. Today's atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science.

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Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity. De Botton has done us a service by showing why atheists should be friendly to religion. Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe or don't believe. When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous.

The fixation on belief is most prominent in western Christianity, where it results mainly from the distorting influence of Greek philosophy. Continuing this obsession, modern atheists have created an evangelical cult of unbelief. Yet the core of most of the world's religions has always been holding to a way of life rather than subscribing to a list of doctrines.

Hegel - A Guide for the Perplexed

In Eastern Orthodoxy and some currents of Hinduism and Buddhism, there are highly developed traditions that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all. Though not often recognised, there are parallels between this sort of negative theology and a rigorous version of atheism.


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Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism. While not compatible with any kind of literalism, atheism of this strict kind is consistent with many varieties of religious practice. The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.

Unfortunately, de Botton falls into this confusion when he endorses Comte's scheme for a humanist church.

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