De Botton (A Week at the Airport, 2010, etc.) suggests ways a secular society can provide the benefits and comfort its citizens once derived from faith.
The author’s central argument is credible: Religions “serve two central needs…which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill”—the need for community and the need for consolation in the face of life’s ills and evils. The devil is in the details, as de Botton cherry-picks isolated rituals from Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism and proposes some not-very-persuasive modern equivalents (e.g., an Agape Restaurant designed to be “a secular descendant of the Eucharist” and a museum that offers spiritual guidance by organizing its artworks into subsets such as the Gallery of Self-knowledge and the Gallery of Compassion). Yes, the Jewish Day of Atonement provides an orderly format for acknowledging that we all injure others and all must learn to forgive. The idea that we can replace this timeworn practice with a billboard ad promoting Forgiveness in lieu of a sneaker brand is insulting to believers and atheists alike. When the author tosses off such comments as, “[o]ur artistic scene might benefit from greater collaborations between thinkers and makers of images, a marriage of best ideas with their highest expression,” he seems to have forgotten about the horrors wrought in service to that principle by Stalin and Hitler, to name only two political leaders who fancied they knew best what artists should say. The author displays a similar historical insouciance when he implies there has been no transcendent, spiritually nourishing architecture since the cathedrals, ignoring several centuries of train stations, libraries and government buildings expressing a monumental faith in civic culture that may languish today but was once a real force in public life.
Unlike The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and The Architecture of Happiness, this installment in the author’s oeuvre is shallow and glib.