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Alain de Botton: The apostle of atheism claims we "expect to much" of secular artists if we hope they will compensate for religious ones 

Meaning only to skim through Alain de Botton's new book Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) I read every word, engaged by his wit and limpid prose, impressed by the sheer plenitude of facts on display, and finally delighted to find such an effective apologia for religious belief. 

Of course there are the occasional pro forma gibes at the absurdity of superstition: raised as an atheist, de Botton survived a "crisis of faithlessness" in his mid-twenties and now regards it as "boring and unproductive" even to ask whether the claims of any particular religion are true. But unlike most of today's apostles of atheism, de Botton eschews the optimism of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He is steeped in the gloomy pessimism of Qoheleth (the Preacher) and understands that the first step towards human happiness is the acceptance of the reality of Original Sin. 

De Botton divides his study into chapters on "Community", "Kindness", "Tenderness", "Pessimism", etc, and illustrates it with photographs embedded in the text. Time and again, he shows how the rites, traditions, teachings and devotions of religion cater for the profound and often contradictory needs of our human nature — even the wild indulgence of Mardi Gras or the Feast of Fools.

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