Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers

I am reading through Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion one chapter at a time and blogging my responses as I go. In the beginning of his chapter on Community (specifically the subsection “Meeting Strangers”) de Botton paints with pretty prose a picture of profound alienation between people in the modern world. Unfortunately he paints only in black and white for the most part. Despite his general eloquence, I have the nagging suspicion that one could pen a paean with equal poignance to the enduring and satisfyingly tightening social interconnectedness between people in the modern world.

One could find articulate ways to describe how our lives are so much less provincial and so much more globally intertwined than ever before. We are constantly advancing our technological capacities to reduce the space between us and to keep those we love with us everywhere we go, via tweets and texts and status updates and phone calls, etc. Through social media we can also casually stay connected to, and up to date on, many more hundreds of people in our social network whom we genuinely value but do not have the daily time to interact with one on one. We can keep old friends even as we move great distances and create new friendships in new places. And even the most solitary, isolated, and socially maladept people can find instant human contact by just logging on to the internet and posting in a public forum with hundreds or thousands of participants. (Go ahead, basement dweller—comment on this blog post! Here’s your chance!) Members of despised groups or those with minority opinions can also find each other in profoundly more effective ways through the internet, allowing for incredibly vast networks of support for people who in prior eras would have been far more isolated, lonely, and incapable of developing their identity with likeminded others.

On and on, we can do as de Botton does and focus on the ways that the modern world distinctively shapes our inevitable and ineradicable tendencies towards loneliness. But we can go on equally long (and I am inclined to say longer) counting up ways that the modern world also opens up whole new exciting vistas of social connectivity through utterly transformative technology, burgeoning institutions, and increasingly diversified identity rallying points. And if we are really being scrupulous, we should pay close attention to the ways that broad generalities about “our” overall degrees of alienation or sociability are likely to be false simply because individuals’ lives are all quite different and afford radically disparate opportunities for social connection. There is no one “modern, secular condition”, but many such conditions.

There may indeed be things we can learn from the distinctive tools religions use for fostering social community. There may be valuable structural forms or functionalities that religions have devised for uniquely effectively meeting people’s social needs which secular institutions may yet need to learn how to replicate if they are to make religious institutions utterly obsolete.

But it is not necessary to set up an analysis of religions techniques for community building with an exaggerated and lopsided account of modern alienation. The modern world does not need to be rescued by religion. Modernity’s already done a staggeringly good job of replacing, and drastically improving on, religious institutions in countless areas of life, including the social. Whatever may yet be profitably learned from religion will only build on and continue to strengthen the secular realm, rather than save it from some imagined, historically new, especially dire existential tragedy of social alienation.

To adequately debunk de Botton’s ideas in his deeply flawed consideration of what secularists have to learn from religion about community building, I will need a few more posts. In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

My first post on de Botton was Why I Bother Writing About the Boring Question of Whether Religious Beliefs Are True.

More analysis of de Botton’s views on community are in my post on The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity.

  • Sheesh

    The bulk of “old people”, if you’ll permit the generalization, don’t consider social networks, online communities, clans and guilds, ubiquitous asynchronous mobile communication (texting, email, “tweeting”), etc. as real, actual social connectedness. Without changing this perception it really is impossible for them to see it anything but de Botton’s way.

    We’re all divorced from real friendship and meaningful relationships they tell us. They are just out of touch, as it ever was, I guess.

    • Sheesh

      To be clear, I’m not defending the generation gap or the digital divide or anything; I’m just saying it exists.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    Sometimes, however, when we turn off the technology and are back in the room alone, the community can feel many miles wide and an inch deep.

    • Sheesh

      Isn’t this true by definition, when you’re alone you’re alone? If you like, please explain.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      Meat space and cyberspace are different experiences, and quantity of connections is not the same as quality. I agree with Dan’s point about glib, one-sided bemoaning of modern alienation, but it is real and it is why so many are running to the mega-churches. On line you can’t hear them laugh and you can’t hear them cry, an you can’t hold them close. De Botton has a valid point that he is making in stupid terms. What is this Atheism 2.0 nonsense? What ever became of “secular humanism?” That’s a project already in progress that neither atheists nor religionists seem to mention often enough. Yeah, mere atheism doesn’t meet our squishy, communitarian, emotional needs, but that’s not its job. De Botton is barking up the wrong tree. And atheists are a half-baked community.

    • John Morales

      On line you can’t hear them laugh and you can’t hear them cry, an you can’t hold them close.

      But then, On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

      (Very important for some — and I don’t refer just to furry communities! ;) )

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      True, but even a dog has to get out, run with the pack, and sniff a few trees and be a dog. It’s what he evolved for.

    • Sheesh

      So this kind of naturalistic argument fades away when the technology of telepresence improves, I guess (or will the goalposts then move to smelling your friends is vital to real relationships?).

      Were you born before 1970, Bruce? This was kind of my point about the generation gap. To you sniffing butts and running with the pack is more “real” than shouting, “grats” on Vent and fighting virtual monsters together.

      I understand the sentiment, you don’t think online friends are real friends. I’m just saying this is probably wrong (just like pen pals weren’t real friends I guess) and the misunderstanding is just typical age-old age-gap talking past each other.

    • karmakin

      And I’m actually telling you flat out that this is wrong. While yes, just like the real world most of your acquaintances are going to be just that, you really can make deeply connected pure friends online.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

      Waitaminute…1970 is the cut-off date for geezerhood? Screw that noise… razzlfrazzit…rotten kids…GET OFF MY LAWN!

    • Sheesh

      No disrespect Lou! I chose that date because it’s sort of the cut-off for births that grew up in the personal computer age (I’d maybe say if I were to venture a 4th sig-fig 1974, middle class anglosphere children born in that year would have had access to a home computer for as far back as they have memories.) Vic-20s/C=64s, Apple Is, IBM PCs etc.

  • davidct

    I think that there is quite a mythology about alienation in modern society. It is true that the way we tend to warehouse the elderly in US society has promoted alienation in this group but this is not the way most people interact. There is a tendency to overlook the many new opportunities for people to interact in their communities that were simply no available in the past. I don’t think that de Botton has any idea of how people have adapted to new ways of interacting that simply did not exist in my parent’s generation.

  • julian

    I wonder how much this has to do with writing from a neurotypicals position. That everyone should be outgoing and that those that aren’t must be lonely or in desperate need of your outgoing spirit to liven up their lives.

    Take Bruce S. Springsteen’s comment above

    On line you can’t hear them laugh and you can’t hear them cry, an you can’t hold them close.

    Nevermind that with skype and other messaging services you can hear them laugh and you can see the smiles on their face, but I can’t help but think it assumes that the best and most healthy way to communicate with others is by talking face to face.

    I hated talking to people during my teen years. And I always set myself up to accommodate them sacrificing small bits of what I believed to validate their world view. On line I didn’t feel that impulse, I could be myself free from my inability to maintain eye contact and having to stare at people’s noses.

    Of course who I was turned out to be was a sexist libertarian fuck, but that’s besides the point.

    We don’t all experience relationships the same way and some of us prefer different mediums. It doesn’t make the relationships less real or more shallow, they’re just different and they’re certainly all vulnerable to the same issues.

  • karmakin

    I think that it’s important to understand the “two faces” of religion, so to speak. I think one does a good job of doing what de Botton thinks we need to provide, but the other one does not. The big problem with this, is that I think that more than likely the religious experiences that de Botton wants to emulate do not actually do a good job of building this sort of community and connection.

    First, you have the actual religious service, that is, the religious leader in the front of the group giving a talk, singing songs, etc. This is what I think de Botton is looking to emulate. While this is a strong provider of catharsis, there’s no real opportunity for cross-connection, as it is generally in a top-down environment.

    But secondly, you have all the other community things that religious groups do. Charity work, bible study, and other group activities are much more effective in creating cross-connection situations.

    Where I think de Botton is mistaken is that for the things in the second face, which promote cross-connections, we don’t actually need what we would conventionally think of as religious experiences. As I’ve said before, it’s not that I’m opposed to non-theistic religious experiences, I just don’t think that they’re a strict solution for anything.

    What’s needed is more and more secular structures, businesses and organizations that provide the common-space and automatic “icebreakers” to create cross-connections.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      Where I think de Botton is mistaken is that for the things in the second face, which promote cross-connections, we don’t actually need what we would conventionally think of as religious experiences.

      We don’t need religious experiences, but the infrastructure provided by religious institutions makes it much easier to promote those cross-connections, even for those who aren’t necessarily that great at social interactions in meatspace. The secular world counterparts, such as social clubs, workplaces, etc., are often not quite as good at providing the “icebreakers” (as you put it) as religious institutions have been. There certainly isn’t as strong a sense of being part of an extended family.

    • karmakin

      Simple question.

      Why?

      What is it about religious institutions that is not or could not be in non-religious institutions?

    • J. J. Ramsey

      karmarkin:

      What is it about religious institutions that is not or could not be in non-religious institutions?

      In practice, religious institutions tend to be better at instilling a sense of kinship with fellow members of the institution. Having that “first face” is actually somewhat helpful at establishing this, as well as being a ready excuse for getting a bunch of people together in the first place, who can chat with each other after the service, go for brunch, etc. For a dominant religion, like Christianity in the U.S., its shear ubiquity is helpful. Coming to a new town and want to start making a new circle of acquaintances? Find a church!

      None of those things are unique to religion, and in principle, if, say, Ethical Culture were more commonplace, it could more readily supply such things.

    • Sheesh

      You should visit Dragon*con (or really any of the fandom cons, I assume) if you want to see 1000s of people being totally at ease with total strangers they have never met and might not again for years.

      But you know, friendships from fandom, online and off, aren’t real, and surely religion is better for you than sharing a common interest in sci-fi or something. CUGs and LUGs and a million other regular hobbiest meets: same deal. These are somehow worse despite the lack of dogma, coercion and eternal judgement. Wink wink!

    • J. J. Ramsey

      Sheesh:

      You should visit Dragon*con (or really any of the fandom cons, I assume) if you want to see 1000s of people being totally at ease with total strangers they have never met and might not again for years.

      While I might very well enjoy the experience, there is this not-so-small matter of such things being rather expensive and inconvenient to attend. Even if the event itself is free, the cost of travel is not, and then there is the matter of getting time off from work.

      But you know, friendships from fandom, online and off, aren’t real, and surely religion is better for you than sharing a common interest in sci-fi or something. CUGs and LUGs and a million other regular hobbiest meets: same deal.

      I tend to use Linux at work rather than home, but I still checked out whether there was a local LUG anyway. Trouble is, in my case, there isn’t. Finding people in meatspace who share a common fandom is hit and miss, and that’s more true the more niche the fandom is. As for interacting with people online — well, I already do. It can be very nice, but it just is not the same.

      I’m not saying that believing in a religion is better than being a fan of science fiction, anime, etc. Heck, I stay home on Sundays these days. However, I do remember the social aspects of church, and if it weren’t for the fact that the cost of them was believing in things that are dubious at best, I’d happily continue to take part.

  • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    Two other things to consider. In the past, distance was the ultimate separation. As an example (the same might be said for those who moved from rural to urban settings for another), people who came to this continent from the old one left everything behind–parents, siblings, communities–everything. Can you imagine how lonely that would have been? The only consistent form of communication was by letter that might have taken weeks or even months to get there and the same to return. Technology really has made this world a global village. It doesn’t matter where you are (excepting some really isolated places), you can get in touch with the people who love you. You can hear their voices, see their faces (either in real time or though photograph), most of de Botton’s audience can even get on a plane and travel to see those people in person within a few hours rather than the months it might have taken not that long ago.

    In the past, not only could the close proximity of family and co-religionists be alienating for those people who didn’t conform or fit in, but even for people who got along with their families, living in such close quarters all the time could be stifling. Part of the reason why the drive for individual human rights has become such a hallmark of our age is because there wasn’t really room for individuality in the past. You weren’t you, you were part of a family, part of a church, part of a caste. Everyone around you had an interest in policing your behaviour (& need I mention that women had it the worst in this department?)–are you doing what’s expected of you? how do your actions reflect on your family? are you socialising with the wrong sort of people? Is this really the situation de Botton wants us to return to?

    • julian

      That’s something I hadn’t thought of, but the natural policing a community does can be a good thing. Although much of that good is already available in this loosely strung together thingie being called a community.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Is this really the situation de Botton wants us to return to?

      Quite creepily, it seems “yes”. I’ll get to his chapter on what we supposedly have to learn from religion about morality and in a nutshell it’s “more paternalism please!”. It’s really off putting and shallow and morally regressive.

      There must be something better than that we can learn from religion about moral training! They’ve had millennia to develop techniques of moral formation. There must be something they’ve come up with besides infantilization of people.

    • Sheesh

      the natural policing a community does can be a good thing. Although much of that good is already available in this loosely strung together thingie being called a community.

      Vi is the best! No emacs is the best, heretic!

      (Community policing in action without the slut-shaming.)

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    There’s nothing here so far I disagree with, or don’t already notice and believe, but I think the respose to de Botton has been in part a misunderstanding and an overreaction, brought on by his insistence on framing this discussion with the catchy, misleading phrase “atheist religion” rather than something like, say, “secular community” or “humanist fellowship.” He is rightly identifying a major need/impulse in people, varying with individuals, but innate, useful, powerful and permanent, requiring regular doses of physical presence, custom/ritual/ceremony, and similar things we traditionally associate with religious activity. I think the difference here is not one of age as Sheesh posits, but of temperament and perhaps neurology, and Julian’s reference to this all being directed to the needs of “neurotypcals” is exactly right. To the extent that the so-called atheist movement is heavily influenced by neruo-atypical personalities who interact more (or as) happily in virtual, anonymous and physically remote ways, atheist “culture” is out of touch with these persistent qualities of human psychology that religion successfully leverages. The guy who is more functional and fluent out of the social touchy-feely slurry and in the world of numbers and nerds has alwayd been with us. There were plenty of Sheldon Coopers around even back in the dark agees of the 70s when I was coming up. I know because while I wasn’t fully one of them, many were my friends. I understand the milieu.

    De Botton”s useful, valis point is that if atheists want to actually communicate with believers and persuade them that a better way is out there, they have to address that typical, natural psycho-social need. In a sense, he is saying to the atypical atheist “You need to understand hat it is about religion that is so useful and nourishing for the typical person, and be smart enough to meet that need if you want to wean them from the downsides of faith and superstition. Just saying ‘suck it up and be rational’ is insensitive and ignorant. Not everyone is, can be, or should be like you.”

    And atheists already have their religious revival meetings. Sorry, but TAM and Comic-Con are certainly very “religious” events in form and tone, given this functional, social meaning of religion, as painful as that association may sound. When I see skeptics cheering for the SGU gang of secular idols at a conference and reacting reflexively, as a mass, to catch phrases, inside jokes — the “shibboleths” of their identity group — I notice that they are more in need of what de Botton is describing than the stereotypes would seem to allow. Me, I’m not that into the group gathering for reinforcement — I don’t do the Cons and such — but I’m atypical in my own ways and wouldn’t dream of dissing those who want/need that.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I agree with all the aims and sociological analysis you spell out here Bruce. Except de Botton (thus far) shows no interest in persuading believers of anything. He only seems interested in existing secular people creating these alternative spaces.

      Eric Steinhart and I on this blog have argued that atheists have to reach out to those people (atheists and current believers who could be deconverted) who need real space connection and communities built specifically around shared values and metaphysics, etc. And we’re not even afraid if people want to call that “religion” as long as that’s not authoritarian and faith-based in nature, etc.

      My problem though is that this is just one need among many social needs. And not fulfilling this need does not represent a total breakdown of sociability. My problem is that the framing is not truthful. You want to argue that there are unique functionalities we are still to replicate in secular terms and unique needs we are still to meet? Great. I argue that! Eric argues that! This blog has taken a lot of flak for arguing that. But don’t set this up as a salvation narrative. That’s just not honest.

      And don’t show that truth and freedom and rationality, etc. are secondary concerns to you as de Botton (so far) does in his admiration of religion. He is not interested so far in rationalism, just social functions, even if they are not rationalistic. I find that problematic. We need rationalism as the antidote to faith and authoritarianism. Otherwise atheistic religion could be as dangerous as theistic kinds.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    Oh, and regarding the potential of remote and virtual presence to capture those haptic qualitites of meat-space, I promise they will never accomplish, however closely they try to approximate it, the impression I could make on you if you were in the room with me now. That’s not to invalidate or denigrate the new ways of interaction — I embrace them fully and with excited anticipation — but it will be a long time before they come anywhere close to the experience neurotypical have in the presence of another human animal. The burden of proof is on anyone who says the new ways will replace the old, rather than augmenting.

    I have some excellent relationships online, with people who I enjoy, understand and even love in ways I would not want to have missed, though I may likely never see them in person. But I don’t imagine that I wouldn’t experience them in substantially different ways if we were traditionally connected. Paradoxically, the only way I could empirically demonstrate this for you is if you came to visit me, rather than trying to convey it to you in th comments on a blog. ;)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The burden of proof is on anyone who says the new ways will replace the old, rather than augmenting.

      But some of the augments provide benefits that the old didn’t have, too.

      Again, I’m all for replicating what’s missing from the old. I just dislike his framing as though on net there is a social loss when really there is an amazing growth and diversification in whole new ways of being social also going on.

    • Sheesh

      Yes, I’m essentially agreeing with Dan, and like to think I was on the same page with my first comment too. I just can’t stand the argument that my online friends, friends I’ve had online for in some cases nearly 20 years are aren’t real friends. I was just trying to guess why someone would think this way, and was trying to make a hypothesis: you formed your conception of what friends were, what relationships are real, what constitutes a “real friendship” in a culture that had not yet been as deeply influenced by the “PC revolution” (as they used to call it).

      Additionally, we were making the same point about cons.

      So I don’t have any particular beef with what you’re saying.

      But I did predict you’d move the goalposts back deeper into the future. So let’s go there hypothetically, since I guess we’re all nerds here.

      (Veering off topic to continue this line of thought…)

      Where do the goalposts stop? When we can fully capture and transmit the entire sensory experience of a setting? How about recording and transmitting thoughts, brain-states or other fantastic feats of brain measurement and nervous interface? Or we can take as granted that we’ll never fully model the intricacies of the brain and instead imagine a type of force-feedback replication and sensory recreation that’s external to the brain (the cliche of the VR bodysuit capable of tricking your skin into replicating a sensation in your brain); chemical triggers to trick the nerves in your nose; indistinguishable audio fidelity to trick the nerves in your ears; hell why not androids crafted to match the flavors and scents of other people (or food processors capable of downloading the description of or synthesizing from “cooking models” any known food or flavor to trick the nerves in your tongue. If you can accept that we are meat robots driven by brain chemistry you sort of have to concede that we’re pretty easy to manipulate. Is manipulating the brain going to hit a brick wall at some point and prevent this? What about crazy crap that exceeds the sort of intimacy we know in person, like what brain-sharing/mind-linking or nutty singularity type arguments were “we” aren’t even in meat bodies anymore, can we still be intimate then? When we can transport our consciousness entirely over remote distances to remote bodies or synthetic digital “locations”? Can friendships every exceed the level of face to face interaction you reserve for realness?

      In another two thousand years will those fantastic friendships be real or not?

    • Sheesh

      But yeah, “your burden of proof” can never be reached, because you know, “evidence from the future.” Oh well. :-(

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    I have only seen de Botton’s TED talk and understand him to the extent I could from that. I haven’t had access to (or frankly much interest in) the book in question, so I have to accept that your reading of him may be more accurate, or at least more complete, than my current understanding of his point. As I’ve said, as far as I have seen, he does not make this point well or in the most useful terms. But I also see what looks to me like some defensiveness and reading-in by atheist commentators. I didn’t hear him say that these new forms of relationship are less “real” or intrinsically deficient and worthless — and I haven’t said it etiher — but rather hear in his argument a practical reinforcement of what McCluhan observed, that the medium and environment in which we engage each other colors, shapes, delimits, and distorts the meaning and qualities of that interaction. And that the majority of human beings, regardless of age or culture, have certain long-standing and deeply ingrained requirements for interaction of certain kinds, needs which have historically been strongly exploited/fulfilled by religion. No one has argued that the new forms of interaction are “unreal” or not worth having; indeed they are opening new opportunities for broad discovery and social connection at a breathtaking pace, too fast for some, not fast enough for others. The argument is that, for the time being, and possibly for a long time and forever, there are aspects of human psychology that demand what these new ways cannot provide, by their nature. Now that current observation and long-term speculation may be mistaken, or too pessimistic, but the proof is in the making.

    We do know that many actual, real people have already said that these innovations are leaving them dissatisfied and alienated — think of all the people you know who grouse about and then abandon Facebook or some other web forum because of chronic miscommunications, personal nastiness, and general pointlessness that they don’t have to endure so much in traditional social spaces. If technology and institutions evolve to meet those concerns, then it may prove the hunch that our hard-wired nature demands these things. If most people do come to the point where the virtual and remote connections are an adequate substitute, without emulating the old forms or merely augmenting them, then we skeptics will stand corrected.

    If it is being suggested by anyone that mere atheism, rationality, science literacy and ready access to chat and debate on tap by remote access will evolve us into some brave new species with different psychology and social dynamics, I say sure — partly and already we see it in that generational shift. The generation gap is not that big and somewhat of a canard, however, and I meet plenty of young people who are already disillusioned with the improvements even as their late-coming elders are grabbing it with both hands and shaping it to their own need. The proof lies in the future. De Botton is saying by my understanding that, in the meantime, if atheism wants to be seen as more than a cold, disconnected, repetative rant by hyper-rationalists who prefer to engage on keyboards anonymously and who disparage the affective needs of the neurotypical, it has to examine what it is that makes religion so compelling and account for it and think about what that means, and not just dismiss it as stupidity and weakness. If that is not what he is saying, then OK. But if he isn’t, I’m saying it. ;)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Again Bruce, I agree entirely about meeting the needs of those you here call the neurotypical. My point is that de Botton’s aims are not the problem, his shitty dichotomies and poor judgment in assessing what is actually of value in religion is. I’m not a knee jerk detractor. I’m someone who wants this done right and I don’t feel the need to uncritically praise someone who I think is doing it wrong (and giving those of us who do want to do it right a bad name). I’m three chapters into the book and it’s shallow and poorly reasoned.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    BTW, de Botton will be here this week and I intend to see him. If I find my way to the microphone for a comment/question is there anything you guys thunk I should ask him? I have my own ideas.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    I don’t have trouble believing your assessment of the book, Dan. I do have the sense of a guy who is trying to make too much of some rather trite observations and concerns that are already being well-addressed by others. Atheism is a red herring. Humanism is the meat. At the veryleast he is adding no value t the conversations, and at the orst he may be lending too much credence to old, bad ideas. I didn’t see the evils you are finding in the talk, but I look forwad to your fair critique, and it looks like I’m going to have to read the damned book myself, after all. Don’t really want to, though. I mean, everyone is writing a needless book these days, and I hate to have to read them all just to determine I didn’t need to. I’m counting on you for accurate summaries.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      Apologies for the typos, incidentally. This iPad keyboard is inadequate to my natural needs. ;)

    • Sheesh

      Hey, not to worry a transparent, deformable surface to provide haptic response can’t be far away ;)

      I have a similar anxiety about having to read books that are bad (or that I know I’ll hate) just to make good faith arguments (or informed critiques I suppose). Plus it’s boring.

      Ever read a book a creationist insists on? Sheesh.

  • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Alethea H. Claw

    Ah, the happiness of religious community. The warm community bonding together to ostracise the nonconformists. The moral rectitude of cutting dead that whore whose skirts are too short. The fresh clean smells of the weekly delivery from the Magdalen laundry. The excitement of whipping that unruly child who dared to suggest that Father was molesting him or her, the little lying limb of Satan. The joyous family picnic at the lynching. What good times!

    • Bruce S. Springsteen

      Yeah, that’s just an obtuse and irrational response to the discussion de Botton is trying to propose. This is exactly the sort of useless atheist hyperventilating that is giving us a bad rep. You are straw-manning, just the way people do when they ignore and caricature Dawkins’ actual remarks and views. Thanks for the example of exactly the problem de Botton is trying to move past.

    • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Alethea H. Claw

      Obtuse and irrational? Coldly factual, I’m afraid.

      If you really want to somehow extract the good parts of religion, you’re not going to get anywhere by sweeping the bad bits under the carpet. The bad parts were not some kind of accidental random chance. Romanticising religion is not going to help. Address the reality, not the make-believe. Exactly this kind of religious “community” is very much alive and well and active today – just look at the Anoka-Hennepin case. And the Jessica Ahlquist case.

      Ooh err, look at me being a useless hyperventilating atheist. Jeeze, it’s not like religion is trying to enslave me or anything. Those nice community-loving people just want to control my uterus and call me a slut, how could I be so mean as to hyperventilate at them?

    • John Morales

      This is exactly the sort of useless atheist hyperventilating that is giving us a bad rep.

      It’s hardly useless, when it elicits your disdain for truth and desire for appeasement.

      (Bah)

      You are straw-manning, just the way people do when they ignore and caricature Dawkins’ actual remarks and views.

      She’s inclusive, so you should refer to straw-dummying; more to the point, you apparently don’t care to face the harsh truth of history.

      Thanks for the example of exactly the problem de Botton is trying to move past.

      Oh yeah, a real problem, it is, that some of us don’t ignore the bad that comes with the ‘good’ (and worse, recognise their qualitative disparity).

      (Some of you want to move past problems, others actually acknowledge them)

    • julian

      Romanticising religion is not going to help. Address the reality, not the make-believe.

      Yes please.

      Personally I’d be willing to be much less suspicious of an atheist ‘church’ if it weren’t the othering that religions engage in that create much of the community mentality.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Romanticising religion is not going to help. Address the reality, not the make-believe.

      And demonizing religion is not going to help either. Address the reality—all the reality, including both the bad and the good—not the make-believe.

  • Rike

    Alethea: THAT! I so agree with you. What use a “community” where you are unable to express your deepest thoughts if they should be in opposition to the “teachings”.
    No matter how fun church activities can be, they will only be fun if you agree with the community spirit and never waver. A church community is never build on friendship but only on dogma.
    I just ran across this news item on a blog around here a few days ago:
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/09/after-firings-and-controversy-the-wedding-will-go-on/
    Even though the church “community” indicated that they supported the couple, nobody seems to have left the church like I would have expected true friends would do!

  • consciousness razor

    Daniel Fincke (nested somewhere upthread):

    There must be something better than that we can learn from religion about moral training! They’ve had millennia to develop techniques of moral formation. There must be something they’ve come up with besides infantilization of people.

    You’re being serious here, right? Why must that be?

    Religions are “successful” at instilling moral formation and community in precisely the wrong ways. They’ve had millennia to become better and better at infantilizing, demonizing, confusing, presumptuous nonsense; but as far as I can tell, that pretty much sums everything religion can legitimately claim for itself. So I really don’t understand why you think it must have something more, which the non-religious must be lacking.

    Exactly which social functions are you talking about? Part of the reason I find this line of conversation frustrating is because I’ve only ever seen vague handwaving about our need for “community” and “shared values” and “soul-searching”, etc. — whatever that’s supposed to mean. If this isn’t just an excuse to talk endlessly (which would be fine), then exactly how is anyone supposed to use that to do anything about what are supposedly urgent social and psychological needs which aren’t being? If there’s really a problem, then someone should be able to put their finger on it. If that means pointing me to the research, rather than trying to briefly describe it in a comment, that’s fine with me.

    Anyway, if it’s going to come from a religious technique, function, formalism, etc., I suppose it would have to meet these sorts of criteria:

    [1] It is limited to something which has an unambiguously positive effect overall. It could be some relatively minor aspect of a generally despicable concept or practice, but whatever can be isolated from the rest needs to be positive (on balance, if not entirely).
    [2] It could in principle be adapted to be non-religious.
    [3] It isn’t worse than a non-religious alternative (either as it already exists, or as it would be given some improvements which are reasonable and practical).
    [4] It in some way addresses a real problem for anyone who isn’t delusional, or else it somehow helps them be less delusional.

    I can’t imagine a single thing that qualifies, but maybe someone else can.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      My point is that along with all the very bad values religions have inculcated, they have also inculcated some good ones. Is it possible they have only ever done so with their notorious infantalizing, demonizing, and other assorted evil tactics? Maybe, I guess, but it’s possible not and worth investigating whether or not. I’m openminded here. Looking to learn from any source of truth and goodness, however overall flawed it might be. I just don’t want to take its awful that outweighs its good in the process.

    • consciousness razor

      My point is that along with all the very bad values religions have inculcated, they have also inculcated some good ones.

      Okay, let’s suppose there are. Values aren’t social functions, techniques, rituals, institutional structures, etc. They’re just values, which are concepts. People bring up all manner of things which they think atheists are lacking, so I tried to leave it open-ended.

      If we’re limiting it to religious values, and you’re saying our non-religious values are lacking that special something that some of them may or may not have, what does that mean? We don’t need any supernatural concepts (not even in our values), and that is the defining feature of any value which could be described as uniquely religious. So we either don’t need them or they weren’t religious in the first place, because they don’t require require gods or spirits or magical unicorns or whatever other nonsense.

    • John Morales

      My point is that along with all the very bad values religions have inculcated, they have also inculcated some good ones.

      And de Sade considered the collective pleasure gained from tormenting others could outweigh the collective suffering of its victims.

      (Pleasure is a good outcome, no?)

      Less snarkily, I note that you speak as if the good could be had without also having the bad — I have yet to see anyone convincingly make that case.

  • Bruce S. Springsteen

    You guys are proving a point I have previously been unwilling to accept, that the definition of “religion” being attacked by many atheists is one-sided and dogmatic, and not a little hysterical and hypocritical. To notice this tendency among the angrier members of the movement is not “accommodation.” It is balance, as opposed to dogma.

    While many people’s experiences with religion are authoritarian and degrading, many, perhaps most, are not. While I always was an atheist/humanist/skeptic, in retrospect, my time spent in a church exploring the issues of community, ethics, purpose were very enjoyable and conducive to my development as a person. We has many very thoughtful sessions at Wednesday night youth group discussing ethics and interpersonal relations, in a supportive, open environment facilitated by a well-read, caring youth minister. These heart-to-heart conversations in an organized forum were simply not available in any other venue. It’s the place where I first conceived and defended, to general surprise and approval, the notion that same-sex mariage should be supported by religion, not attacked. Churches at their best know how to bring people together and let them share their uncertainlties. Our experience wasn’t about indoctrination so much as about self-examination and mutual encouragement, and that is the draw at church for many who, if you press them, admit they find the content of the doctrines hard to believe, and the old hellfire a bit harsh and probably untrue. But stilll they go, and they are the better for it on balance. What’s wrong with trying to keep that while scrubbing out the superstition and authoritarianism? That is what is being proposed, so all this whinging about the evil religions has done is missing the point at issue. I have deplored the negative and false aspects of religion as fiercely as anyone, in public publications and often alone in my community, and continue to do so in fiery, angry terms. But I always appreciate and respect the good, healthy impulses and needs that really keep people in the churches, even after their own belief in the bullshit has quietly gone dead. To blow over that and disparage it is ignorant and counterproductive. This is not a battle between good and evil., and the tone of high indignation and contempt the reflexivly spews out of so many born-again atheists is what the accommodationists are right to notice and criticize.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      Churches at their best know how to bring people together and let them share their uncertainlties. –Bruce S. Springsteen

      And what is a (Protestant Christian/New Age Christian/Buddhist/Pagan/etc.) church at its most fundamental anyway? Why, it’s a group of people committed to an idea who are willing to set aside time to get together on a regular basis to do something that centers on that idea and reflects it. You know, religion isn’t necessary for that and it never was.

      This is religion claiming that it created this kind of social networking scheme via an atheist talking head. It is disingenuous to say that religions own this thing or that they do it best. At best, one could probably say that it is employed most commonly by religious sects.

      While many people’s experiences with religion are authoritarian and degrading, many, perhaps most, are not.

      So all the people who did not enjoy the full experience or who were discriminated against or silenced in their churches for whatever reason should STFU, is that it? You got lucky and were indoctrinated in a church where you felt safe and comfortable and free, so screw the rest of us who ended up feeling imprisoned, harmed, patronized, brainwashed, abused, and/or threatened by the views of the church we grew up in?

      What’s wrong with trying to keep that while scrubbing out the superstition and authoritarianism?

      What is wrong with that is that it is whitewashing religion. We aren’t against people getting together for group activities. We are against people eschewing reality and plurality and secularism and equality and civility and science and democracy, etc. for fictional creations and debased causes.

    • Sheesh

      Wednesday night youth group discussing ethics and interpersonal relations, in a supportive, open environment facilitated by a well-read, caring youth minister.

      Whoa, did your youth minister know you were atheist?! Amazing! It’s so rare to find a faith community that doesn’t have a problem with atheist existing nearby like a beacon of their wrongness*, but then…

      [self-examination and mutual encouragement] is the draw at church for many who, if you press them, admit they find the content of the doctrines hard to believe, and the old hellfire a bit harsh and probably untrue. But stilll they go, and they are the better for it on balance. …even after their own belief in the bullshit has quietly gone dead… [my emphasis]

      …you go on to say they mostly didn’t believe in all that bullshit anyway, and were all just playing make-believe to have some intimate friends. So you know, I guess religion just makes “many” church-goers (if you press them) pretty dishonest.

      It’s that dishonesty and other epistemic issues that “new” atheists have a problem with when we/they say things like “church is bad for you, why would you want to recreate that?”.

      —-

      I guess maybe I really only have a semantic disagreement. Is it still religion when you get rid of the dogma, superstition, authoritarianism, the lying to fit in, and the othering? Do you need a “church” to have meetings with honest, intimate friends?**

      How can you even call a religion stripped of all its common features a religion?

      * Maybe that should be the goal instead of this churchy Atheism 2.0: atheists working to reform religions so they are inclusive of atheists. Hahahaha, you guys have such crazy ideas. Wonder if we’ll make much progress with Islam — what with the punishment for apostasy.

      ** Where I’m from, we just call these dinner parties and cook-outs. And this is why I get all riled up when Dan insists there are “good parts” to find and exploit that don’t already exist in a form free of the lying and othering and that he’s sure we need to suss them out and investigate super hard and perhaps pretend there is a god so that we can philosophically reach some of these answers.

      —-
      Aratina!

      You forgot “outcast, shunned and/or exiled from former friends and family” at the end of your list. :- But yeah, I’m amazed there are non-UU churches out there that don’t flip out on you when you come out as atheist. Obviously some “faiths” are worse than others.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      And this is why I get all riled up when Dan insists there are “good parts” to find and exploit that don’t already exist in a form free of the lying and othering and that he’s sure we need to suss them out and investigate super hard and perhaps pretend there is a god so that we can philosophically reach some of these answers.

      I have never said that we should perhaps pretend there is a god so that we can philosophically reach some of these answers. That’s a massive mischaracterization of everything I’ve said.

      My point is that there are techniques for developing communities based on shared interest in values and worldview issues, for developing rituals and symbols for helping inculcate values in children and for possibly structuring a sort of cognitive behavioral therapy for adults. That’s. It. There is nothing at all about any of this that requires theism. Nothing. At. All.

      And this is a distinct kind of group many people long for that groups aimed at OTHER things besides philosophy and values development and shared raising of children don’t offer them in a satisfying enough way.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      @Sheesh

      Aratina!

      You forgot “outcast, shunned and/or exiled from former friends and family” at the end of your list. :-

      D’Oh! Even some especially religious first time acquaintances will shun you (or worse!–like threatening to take a swing at you) immediately when they learn you are an atheist.

      But yeah, I’m amazed there are non-UU churches out there that don’t flip out on you when you come out as atheist. Obviously some “faiths” are worse than others.

      It is true that there are non-UU churches (not sects, but particular churches–maybe even that should be qualified as particular people in particular churches) where you can express atheistic sentiments and (some) people won’t flip out. I have personally had a male preacher in a Methodist church earnestly point me towards books that he had read when he was questioning his theistic beliefs, for instance, but that was just one person who in the end still went on to give a Christian sermon every Sunday.

      But if most people making up a church were to stop being committed to a specific theism, then what the hell are they still gathering round for? And why call it a church anymore if they do since the reasons for doing so will no longer be religious? It seems like it would be more of a community center at that point. Indeed, churches are often used as community centers, but that is a secular function, not a religious one, and so it isn’t what Alain de Botton or Bruce S. Springsteen are talking about.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      But if most people making up a church were to stop being committed to a specific theism, then what the hell are they still gathering round for?

      Why is everyone just assuming that the only way to have a community based on values and philosophy is to have a theist one? Why is it that everyone thinks that the only kinds of secular groups possible are ones interested in something other than values and philosophy discussion, shared rituals, shared inculcation of values in children, etc. Other kinds of secular groups are fantastic. I’ve hammered de Botton for ignoring them and painting an unnecessarily bleak picture of secular social life. But here’s a specific kind of extra social good which people have had for ages and that there are not exact analogues in the secular realm for and that maybe there beneficially could be. And if we had those analogue alternatives maybe people could abandon their theism and still get the good things they want. They don’t think they’ll get them from the existing secular institutions which do not directly meet those same needs. What is so wrong with trying to explore how to meet the good needs without the awful methods and false beliefs?

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      @Daniel Fincke

      Why is everyone just assuming that the only way to have a community based on values and philosophy is to have a theist one?

      As far as what you quoted of my writing goes, I was talking about churches, specifically, when they stop being churches by holding community groups and activities that have nothing to do with theism.

      But that question of yours just leaves me with more questions. Why is it necessary to have community centers dedicated to values and philosophy at all? What good will come of that? And rituals and inculcation of values in children are awfully cultish (authoritarian, divisive, patronizing, uncritical, etc.) practices; why would you want that? You talk about an extra social good being somewhere in there in the function of churches, but what is it? And why is this extra social good not found outside of churches as you (and probably de Botton) claim it is not?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Why is it necessary to have community centers dedicated to values and philosophy at all?

      Because we develop institutions for all good and important things. What people’s values are and their philosophical understandings of themselves in many important basic ways are important things. They deserve explicit, conscientious institutions open to everyone and of aid to everyone. And the genius of the religion is to wed this to a supportive community. The dangers of religion are all in the irrationalism and tribalism. But why can’t we found groups on rationalism and avoid those pitfalls?

      What good will come of that?

      What good will come of groups devoted to explicit ethical discussions? Really? This is not clear?

      We need more institutions than the law to work out our values. We need more institutions than the law to develop people’s characters deliberately. It is valuable even from a checks and balances stand point that we have other strong institutions of values that can stand up to governments. We have some within the political realm but it is valuable to have some which are not distinctly political in nature but specifically focused on private values and how they work. Too many people conflate “legal” with “okay” and “not okay” with “illegal”. We can use institutions not superstitious, faith-based authoritarian ones that work out the non-legislatable values for our lives as private citizens.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      @Daniel Fincke

      What people’s values are and their philosophical understandings of themselves in many important basic ways are important things. They deserve explicit, conscientious institutions open to everyone and of aid to everyone. And the genius of the religion is to wed this to a supportive community.

      Except, religions don’t do that–churches aren’t that. They aren’t open to everyone; some explicitly keep people with differring values away, and even the most open-door church would be tested by the wildly differing beliefs and practices that are out there.

      The dangers of religion are all in the irrationalism and tribalism. But why can’t we found groups on rationalism and avoid those pitfalls?

      You mean a club? A school of something or other? A community organization? We have those. And what I was trying to say above is once you remove the theism from a church, those things are what you have. Churches do not own that aspect of social organization among humans; instead, they harness this existing phenomenon for their own devious means.

      What good will come of groups devoted to explicit ethical discussions? Really? This is not clear?

      It actually isn’t that clear to me. What good will come of making community centers with weekly sessions dedicated to that topic? Will it really make any significant difference for the better? What if the dominant ethics in these pseudo-churches turn out to be every bit as awful as the ones in actual churches today?

      We need more institutions than the law to work out our values.

      As far as I can tell, there are multiple distinct communities that are not religiously oriented that oppose bad law, support and promote and lobby for good law, do outreach and community service, and promote each community’s values. Atheism itself is finally getting the hang of that, too (Murray-O’Hair and Dawkins both have been keen on this point). There is no need at all to turn to churches as models for attaining the goal of building a community that shares the same philosophy and values on important points. And going that route–emulating churches–seems to me like it would be a step backward for atheism.

  • Sheesh

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to Aratina. That was basically the discussion I wanted to have. It’s my own fault I guess, you went for the half-sentence dig rather than *everything else* I’ve said.

    pretend there is a god so that we can philosophically reach some of these answers.

    Maybe I’m misremembering — but didn’t we all go round and round around here (for what seemed like days) while you were defending Templeton grants to pretend there was a god because maybe that’s the only way to suss out amazing philosophical truths? We’re all not philosophers so it seemed pretty insane to me: lying about reality is a nonstarter for us dumb rubes.

    Here’s the bit you ignored:

    I guess maybe I really only have a semantic disagreement. Is it still religion when you get rid of the dogma, superstition, authoritarianism, the lying to fit in, and the othering? Do you need a “church” to have meetings with honest, intimate friends?**

    How can you even call a religion stripped of all its common features a religion?

    [...]

    ** Where I’m from, we just call these dinner parties and cook-outs. And this is why I get all riled up when Dan insists there are “good parts” to find and exploit that don’t already exist in a form free of the lying and othering and that he’s sure we need to suss them out and investigate super hard

    Every time this comes up me and any number of others will say “what good stuff? What’s the exclusive extra social good to pull from religion?”

    This is really the closest I’ve seen anyone mention something concrete.

    What’s left after you take all the bullshit, lying, superstition, authoritarianism, and tribalism from religion? “there are techniques [...] for developing rituals and symbols for helping inculcate values in children and for possibly structuring a sort of cognitive behavioral therapy for adults.”

    I am lukewarm on poaching the indoctrination and brainwashing from religion. That’s not something I think that humanism needs. My kid doesn’t need propaganda, he needs wise, responsible role-models, and a society where I can be home enough to teach him values. I’m not ever going to trust him to a church, that’s for sure.

    I hope I’m not stuffing you with straw — I might not be getting your point still.