It seems like a harmless enough book. At slightly over 200 pages, you'd think you would be able to breeze through reading it. Well, you'd be wrong. It's somewhat of a dense read. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, but I wanted to call attention to this. Don't let the size fool you.
The book has 3 chapters, plus the usual introduction and conclusion. The titles of the chapters are "Can We Do Without Religion?," "Does God Exist?," and "Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?," respectively. Guess what they're about.
In the first chapter, Comte-Sponville discusses what is appealing about religion. Not surprisingly, he touts the communal benefits, especially support in times of adversity. He also talks a lot about fidelity, which he defines as a set of core values. He seems to think this fidelity can be achieved through a sort of cultural Christianity. You could certainly argue that this has actually become the de facto religion of much of Europe--showing up in church for weddings, funerals, and the occasional baptism, Easter, or Christmas service.
However, I think this is harder to pull off in the US for two reasons. First, there are way too many American Christians who not only take Biblical ideas very seriously, but they also insist that everyone else do the same in order to be a good Christian, or even to feel welcome in that church. Second, my experience with people who have left Christianity is that they have typically had some sort of significant negative experience that would prompt them to avoid anything remotely Christian (of course, the first reason partially plays into this one!). So, while I like the idea of shared values, I think even cultural Christianity might have too much baggage for a lot of people. I'm not opposed to the idea; I just don't know if it would catch on here. I'll probably elaborate on this in a future post.
I'm not going to get into the second chapter very deeply, because it mostly contains material that can easily found elsewhere. I'll briefly mention one of the arguments against God's existence that I hadn't seen before in detail: basically a "too good to be true" argument:
I would definitely prefer for such a thing to exist, but this is no reason to believe it does. [. . .] I would also prefer for war, poverty, injustice, and hatred to disappear completely. But if someone came up to me tomorrow and told me they had, I would say he was a dreamer, a victim of wishful thinking. . .
This ties in with Freud's stance on religion, but I'd never really heard it fleshed out like this before.
The third chapter is, to me, the heart of the book. I've already discussed whether there can be an atheist spirituality, so here I'd like to focus on what that might entail. Comte-Sponville proposes a variety of options. Throughout the book, he frequently refers to Spinoza and seems to consider pantheism a reasonable choice. Various Eastern thinkers come up as well, and Comte-Sponville's idea of the All or the Absolute could be a way of looking at the Tao or Brahman.
This is probably where hardline materialists and empiricists start to freak out. We have now entered the realm of the unprovable. It's very difficult to talk about something that is universal and intensely personal at the same time. Comte-Sponville talks about what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling." It's worth noting that Rolland was strongly influenced by the writings of Swami Vivekananda.
Obviously, I can't speak for everyone, but it seems most people have experienced a feeling of unity at some point in their lives. I can definitely think of instances where I've felt like I disappeared into whatever I was doing. But everyone who's had such an experience probably reached it in slightly different ways than I did. They might describe their experiences a bit differently, too.
Getting back to the book, there is one major difference between Comte-Sponville and most Eastern religious beliefs, aside from possible supernatural beliefs. Many strains of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the world is something to be renounced for spiritual gain. Comte-Sponville disagrees, saying that the highest good is actually to engage with the world as it is and do the best you can.
Whew! See how much we went through in my little review of this little book? If you're hungry for more, check it out. If I lost you three paragraphs ago, this may not be the book for you!