20 Second Book Review: Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did.

For example, I thought his suggestion that atheists could engage in an annual drunken orgy based on the medieval Feast of Fools free of personal repercussions or consequences to be, well, a little impractical.

But still, I can’t argue that reflection, meditation, and fellowship are fine attributes that don’t need to be restricted to religion.

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On Raising the Godless

In the old days, it was simpler: You just went to the same church your family went to. Whether deep down you agreed with any of it was beside the point. You went because your family, friends, neighbours, and co-workers went there. It was as much a social expectation as anything else. But if you were a working class WASP, it was just what one did.

Then they went and invented the Pill and suddenly, we didn’t have to go to church anymore. Or something like that.

Last Christmas we decided that we would introduce James to two concepts: Santa Claus and Jesus Christ. The reason for this was twofold: At three years and some, he now can converse with us proficiently, even if he repeats himself all the time and has the attention span of a chipmunk on meth. So we started talking about how Christmas works.

There’s Santa and he has reindeer and he comes in your house on Christmas Eve and, drinks the cup of tea and eats the cookie we left for him. And he gives carrots to the reindeer. And he leaves a stocking full of toys and candy on the foot of your bed (it’s a British thing, apparently). And because you’ve been good, you get a Leapster Explorer, which will cease to interest you in two months.

But it seemed lacking somehow and I didn’t want his entire concept of the holiday to be about that damn Toys R Us catalog. I want him to eventually understand that Christmas is about more important things like eating, boozing, and not working.

The thing is, as you’re probably aware, we’re not religious. I tried to throw my lot in with the Unitarians a few years ago but it didn’t take as I got the general sense that particular church really just caters to middle-to-upper-middle class Westmounters and NDGers. Recently, we’ve been going here and we’ll see how that goes. We’ll go to my family’s United Church on trips to New Brunswick just so his grandmother can show off her grandson to her friends. Last year, she gave him a pop-up book about Bethlehem. Yes, I would have rather she not do that but, in the interest of family peace, I stifled my opinions on the subject. To her credit, she’s only once asked us if we intend to have him baptized (we do not).

But the book ended up being an introduction to the concept of Jesus so that worked out well. But it left the question of how, if you don’t acccept the concept of the conception, birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, do you explain what Jesus is to a three year. We can’t say, "We’re celebrating the birth of our saviour" because we’re not. So what I came up with is this: "A long time ago, Jesus was born. People thought he was nice, so now we have Christmas." He’s three. That’s all he’s getting.

While more people are going without religion these days, Christianity still leaves a cultural impression and we’ll have to figure out how to navigate that. I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. If he’s going to live in the world, he’ll need to have at least a passing familiarity with what many people in the world believe. My friend in Toronto had the best take on the subject: "Jesus is just alright with me. His fans can be a little intense, though."

I started writing this post at Christmas and today is Good Friday. I haven’t figured out how to approach that particular subject yet. I think I’ll just sit him down in front of Jesus Christ Superstar.

"So you see, son, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication but they did have a shitload of sequins. Give me a shout if you have any questions."

The Twelve (or Fewer) Days of Christmas Specials. Day 3: WTF Edition

The thing I like about digging through old Christmas specials on YouTube is seeing how they’re really like miniature time capsules. While guys like Tony Bennett have been famous for decades, most famous people tend to get famous for a short while but it never lasts. It’s the fleeting nature of fame, of course. So, as often as not, Christmas specials, in the tradition of all variety shows, are a reflection of the time in which they were produced.

I put this video, again, from a Dean Martin special, on my Facebook page a while back just to show how quickly things can date. A friend didn’t know who any of them were.

For those born after 1980, they were, from the left, Andy Gibb of the Bee Gees, once a massively popular pop group, Erik Estrada, who played a motorcycle cop best known for his tight fitting uniform and his dazzling white teeth (in those days a novelty), and Mel Tillis, a Country and Western singer known for his humourous songs and a stutter, which he played for laughs. For about 15 minutes in 1980, all of these men were superstars.

Then there was the appearance of Andy Kaufman at the Johnny Cash Christmas special, a comedian whose humour could best be described as “conceptual.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the other clip from that broadcast in which Andy proposes marriage to Anne Murray.

And I’m just going to leave this one here:

Grace Jones, on the Pee Wee Herman Christmas special, wearing a molded plastic breast plate and singing “Little Drummer Boy”. The oddest thing? The joke in the show that she was supposed to delivered to the White House where, presumably, she would do this song for then President Ronald Reagan.

The Twelve (or Fewer) Days of Christmas, Part Two: A Very Special Christmas Special Message

It’s a well-worn trope of current show’s annual Christmas episode to feature a central character learning about the True Spirit of Christmas. What happens is a character is behaving uncharacteristically greedy and self-centered and is then put through an hommage to It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. The 1980’s series Moonlighting did this for the former and WKRP in Cincinatti did it for the latter when Mr. Carlson opted to use the station’s profits to buy a new sound board instead of bonuses for the staff. Remember Dr. Johnny Fever as the Ghost of Christmas Future showing the all-automated WKRP of tomorrow in which Herb is the only employee?

Christmas episodes walk a weird line in that while they can discuss “the spirit” of the holiday, they rarely explicitly mention the holiday’s religious origin. Not because Hollywood is run by godless gay atheists (although it is true) but because the overall tone of the show would feel off if, say, on an earlier episode of Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen, while repeatedly touching his nose, started talking about what the birth of Jesus meant to him.

Note- I have never watched an episode of Two and a Half Men so I’ve actually no idea if Charlie Sheen ever gave a speech about Baby Jesus. I’m just assuming.

This vague confusion about the holidays was sent up rather well in the Trailer Park Boys Christmas episode, Dear Santa, Go Fuck Yourself:

And, of course, Ricky gives a speech at the end of the episode in which he discovers the true meaning of Christmas.

I think no matter what our beliefs are, we can all agree that at least once a year, you need to have a brain-learning thing pop in your head that wasn’t there a second ago.

The Twelve (or Fewer) Days of Christmas Specials. Part 1: Dean!

I’m going to confess something here: I like Christmas specials. It hasn’t always been so. When I was young, cynical, and desperate to be thought of as someone who had good taste, I steered clear of the things, decrying them as a bit of candy-coated kétaine.

As I got older, however, I began to like the things. I’m not sure if the two are correlated but it may have happened when I discovered that I also like to have a little rye and ginger around the holidays.

When you get down to it, Christmas specials are weird things. Television networks devote an incredible amount of time to them in a way that they don’t for other holidays. Sure, you’ll get The Ten Commandments on ABC at Passover or maybe even Mohammed, Messenger of God at Ramadan. There are practical considerations for this, surely. Most people are off-work and it doesn’t pay to put up new episodes of your top rated shows during a time when few people would watch them. So specials are taped in advance and re-run until the end of time. In the same way a blogger wants to come up with a quick and easy means of producing content without having to think too much, a network will fill its schedule with cheaply produced variety specials, concerts, sporting events, or seasonally themed episodes of current hit programming.

With that stated, I’d like to make my series posts about the Christmas specials I thought were fun, or odd, or entirely inappropriate. The main criteria for inclusion in this list will be a combination of general datedness, tackiness, and if I can find a decent quality clip of it on YouTube.

One thing to note: I will not be including this year’s Russell Peters Christmas Special because he sucks and I fucking hate his fucking smirking fucking face.

Let’s start with Dean Martin, shall we?  Between 1965 and 1985, Dean Martin recorded approximately 17,284 Christmas specials with an additional 83,382 hours of unreleased specials just sitting in a vault somewhere. Why NBC is just sitting on this goldmine is a mystery or perhaps they really do feel that nobody actually wants to see Dean Martin’s Christmas in Chichen Itza.

From one such special, we have Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, who was already years into his talking-through-songs phase, doing Dean’s signature holiday song, “Marshmallow World”. This was a few years before Dean’s tan elevated itself into a George Hamiltonesque deep bronze but even then, he knew that the secret of bringing that rich mahogany tone to your face was not through spray tans or a tanning booth. No, it was downing a bottle of Canadian Club, slathering yourself in a thick skin of Crisco, and just lolling about in the nude for a few hours in the searing Palm Springs heat.

And if you’re watching at home kids, yes, it was totally cool to smoke back then. Think Bublé will smoke during his Christmas special? No. Because he’s just not that cool. I mean, look at those two up there. The special has just started and they’re already half in the bag.

Perhaps the Christmas specials of today could use more open smoking and drinking. Hmmm… The Mickey Roarke Christmas Special. Hollywood: Make it happen.