Religion for Atheists – Review

Alain de Botton’s recent book Religion for Atheists is a bold proposal for a secular religion that embraces the best parts of tradition while avoiding embarrassing logical fallacies.

De Botton subscribes to the new-atheist belief in the importance of discarding unscientific notions. However, he also feels that our society should rethink secularism and reintegrate some socially useful aspects of faith traditions.

‘The thesis is not that that secularism is wrong, but that we have too often secularized badly – inasmuch as, in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas, we have unnecessarily surrendered some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faiths.’

Socialist commentator Terry Eagleton’s review of Religion for Atheists placed de Botton in a tradition of atheist enlightenment thinkers who were worried that without religion the masses would rise up and society would come apart.

This is unfair. We can see from all de Botton’s work that he has a concern with how to make life meaningful while staying grounded in a rational world-view. The journey to meaning is clearly one the author is making himself, rather than one he is suggesting we make to prevent us doing more riots.

Religion for Atheists is not a conspiracy to cast us into a mystic stupor, but rather a series of misunderstandings of both religion and, less forgivably, secularism.

As a consequence of these misunderstandings, de Botton not only fails to comprehend the profundity of the questions he is asking, but his proposals fundamentally endanger the secular society that he seeks to sacrilise with his new religion.

The trouble starts with the new-atheist faith in the scientific world-view. Science is a network of institutions conducting research into the make-up of physical reality. It reflects a broad set of values about how to most effectively gather and organise data. It is not necessarily the most effective grounding for psychological security or existential authenticity.

Atheist or agnostic or whatever else – we all have our moments of despair and our epiphanies. Ask people about their lives; they will tell you of those moments they stood up, turned around, fought back, accepted, or moved on.

For Danish Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard, human beings are the stands they take on themselves. He wasn’t saying that we aren’t made out of atoms or that we don’t come from primates; he was not denying any of our biological attributes; he was just saying that in the earnest, practical matter of living, we are more than a set of attributes: we are the stand those attributes take on themselves.

Kierkegaard made his stand within a Christian tradition, but other people convert to communism or to capitalism. Others make a profound commitment to another human being, or to a profession. People understand themselves through these commitments: “I am a writer; I am a mother” and so on.

Metaphysical presences, or the lack of them, are very often a key ingredient to someone’s stance toward life.

An atheist friend once described to me the beauty of the moment he accepted that there was no God. He fell in love with the chaotic arbitrariness of the universe – and it comforts him still.

Then take another friend of mine: in defiance of her militantly rationalist father she became a staunch Buddhist. She was compelled toward a religious sense of self that recognised the pain of existence, and oriented her towards overcoming it.

The private spiritual covenants that millions of people make daily with God, or the universe, or nothingness, or Zeus, or death – are neither scientific nor unscientific. Science cannot effectively describe these spiritual transactions; it reduces them to data that is alien to the hearts that were their crucible.

To take away Buddhist heaven, hell, Primordial Buddha Mind and so on, is to remove the transcendent other with whom Buddhist rituals are conducting business. A de Bottonised ritual might calm you down or help bring your community together, but without the metaphysics it will have lost it’s transformative spiritual potential.

De Botton’s confusion about the nature of religion leads seamlessly into his misunderstanding of secularism. He thinks that the reason that secular society is different from religious society is that the former doesn’t rely on fictions as its justification. But aren’t our foundational values, such as equality say, a fiction just as much as a God was previously? After all, we live in a very unequal society.

So in what sense is equality ‘true’? Well, I think it is true in that we hope, we have faith that, by believing in and acting ‘as if’ equality is real, that we will make it a reality. This is a Kierkegaardian commitment that our culture, and millions of individuals who carry it, make all the time.

In this sense faith and belief are unavoidable constituents of language, rather than a defunct element of religion we can jettison at will.

The actual way in which secular society is different from an officially religious society is the law. In Christian Britain, questioning Christianity could get you executed. In modern Britain, to question the foundational justifications for our society (democracy, capitalism, equality and so on) may be rare, but legally it is fine.

Furthermore, the really progressive secularist position is one that affirms the idea that values are not immutable, but rather need to constantly be tested, discussed and changed.

We are asked to respect each other’s religious sense of what is sacred, but a secular institution does not choose one over another. Thus, a university has an atheist society as well as a Christian and an Islamic one. A gallery can exhibit Andres Seranno’s Piss Christ next to an Orthodox icon if it wants.

This is a wonderful state of affairs to be in.

De Botton is intent on reforming society using religion as a model. For instance he suggests universities should train students to look at their culture as a ‘repertoire of wisdom’ to help them confront the ‘infinite challenges of existence’, very much like medieval universities taught religious material.

Over my dead body. At best, this would clog our world-renowned universities with superfluous moral candy floss, and at worst it would return us to a system where the elevation of culture into something sacred means certain positions become unsayable taboos.

Brave people, many of them atheists, fought for generations to conduct scholarship free of the sacred–taboo divide. Riding on an immense cloud of irony, a new atheist has burst into the debate suggesting that we bring it back in.

It is anti-academic to prescribe how we should view culture. Does de Botton realise that turning Churchill into a ‘secular saint’, as he suggests, will hold us back from studying history critically?

I do not want to live in such a society, and if de Botton thinks that this is not what he is suggesting, he is wrong – for it is the careful desacrilisation of culture that has enabled the freedom of criticism that religious and atheist alike enjoy today.

For artists, de Botton has the following prescription: ‘A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with the ideas it is easiest to forget but which are most essential and life-enhancing to remember.’ Luckily, our cutting edge contemporary art scene is unlikely to heed this, because if they did it would surely cast art down into a sentimental Victorian quagmire.

All this is powerfully reminiscent of arguments I sometimes hear from religious anti-secularists. But it is worse, because de Botton not only wants to curb the liberal attitudes of our institutions, just as they do, he also wants to remove the transformative power from religious ways of being.

The task of philosophy is to make profound leaps of imagination that allow us to ask deep, incisive questions. Religion for Atheists stays on the surface of every subject it touches, ignores the experiential importance of metaphysics, and, worst of all, endangers secularism by recommending that institutions generate a sense of the sacred that will inevitably stifle debate.

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