Contra de Botton: Religions Are NOT To Credit With Universalistic Humanistic Values

Alain de Botton’s chapter on community in his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is filled with half-baked thinking. After one-sidedly disparaging modern social life from numerous selective (and sometimes specious) angles, he goes on to model really effectively how not to try to learn from religion (Kindle Location 189):

Solitary though we may have become, we haven’t of course given up all hope of forming relationships. In the lonely canyons of the modern city, there is no more honoured emotion than love. However, this is not the love of which religions speak, not the expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind; it is a more jealous, restricted and ultimately meaner variety. It is a romantic love which sends us on a maniacal quest for a single person with whom we hope to achieve a life-long and complete communion, one person in particular who will spare us any need for people in general.

First of all there is a merely apparent poignancy to his analysis here. It is striking until you ask yourself, “Do romantic comedies really sum up the entirety of modern social psychology?” and realize that the answer is, “Probably not.” Real people are enmeshed in other people’s lives, as they always have been. Countless of us are engaged in service oriented jobs, some of which demand of us emotional and interpersonal investment in those we serve. Many of us are committed to family members beyond our spouse. Many of us looking for a partner are hoping to build a family that involves more than just them. Many of us commit to political causes and feel empathetically towards those affected adversely by government or corporate policies. Many of us connect on Facebook with hundreds of people besides a significant other, all of whom interest us. Many of us work in team relationships with others that develop strong bonds of comradery. I could go on and on.

But my main gripe here is with this bogus contrast between the secular and the religious. He vaguely writes of the superiority to be found in “religions” which he claims speak of “an expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind”. This conveniently elides the fact that many of the major world religions traditionally had no such universalistic conception of themselves and most, in many of their sects’ ideas and/or implicit practices, still don’t. The monotheistic religions of the West are all insular. Religions in general drift in cultish directions quite naturally. The dangerous flip side of their enviable powerful abilities to forge ironclad communities is their ability to foment powerfully corresponding out-group hostilities. This needs to be taken seriously by those who want to extol religion’s virtues.

In the Old Testament the Jews claim to be God’s chosen people and take themselves to have mandates to commit genocide against other peoples deemed unfit to live. The New Testament is replete with contrasts between “the world” on the one hand and “the church” on the other.

In the New Testament Jesus himself tells prospective disciples that they will have to “hate their mother and father” (Luke 14:26) if they are to follow him. Appealing to this verse, I once asked a very earnest, studiously conservative, morally conscientious, self-assured, friendly but uptight, young religious woman whether she would disassociate from her parents were they to reject the faith and she said yes. I said, really? She said, Yes, I’m a Christian. And the Koran’s clear distinction between Muslims and infidels—and its numerous specifications of times and places when it is necessary for Muslims to kill infidels—are too notorious for de Botton to so blithely ignore.

One does not even need to dwell on the major religions’ hostilities towards each other to falsify de Botton’s ludicrous implication that religions are especially good at creating a sense of shared universal human bonds. The intra-faith sectarian bloodshed within religions is, and always has been, horrifying. The slightest disagreements on arcane, rationally unsettlable disputes about superstitious “faith-based” doctrines have led to violent divisions in eras past and to cold shoulders and harsh condemnations even in peaceful secularized countries where religion has been defanged today.

The phrase “the universal brotherhood of mankind” is just a 19th Century liberal Protestant kind of religiosity and not necessarily anything more universal to religions or anything especially expressive of what is distinctively religious in character. The concept is flagrantly an attempt to reinterpret religious symbols in terms of secular values of egalitarianism which had become widespread and were transforming Europe and North America by the end of the 18th Century. The idea that we secularists need to learn this concept from religion is perverse and insulting even. No religion has anything on secular masterworks like Immanuel Kant’s Ethical Philosophy: Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals & Metaphysical Principles of Virtue or the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights or countless secular celebrations of democracy, or the last century’s staggering secular developments of the concepts of women’s, gays’, and other minorities’ rights.

And speaking of women’s full inclusion in humanity—it is fittingly revealing and annoying that de Botton, in turning to religion for a principle of universal human bonds, could not do any better than to find and uncritically adopt a sexist formulation which excludes half of humanity. He celebrates the universal brotherhood of mankind. Because we’re all men and so that makes us all brothers. That’s good old fashioned religious patriarchy for you. It has been secularists—and religionists who are still denounced today as secularists by other religionists—who have fought tooth and claw against misogyny and racism and tribalism and homophobia. Religions, with their typically large percentages of adherents who are committed to way outdated texts for their moral guidance, have always been among the most conservative and reactionary and regressive forces standing athwart such moral universalism and progress.

And, finally, even were religions the first place where we had formulated the concept of universal humanity, we would in no way need religious forms or practices to retain or justify the idea going forward. If the idea is a good one to emphasize, one grounded in a moral truth or advancing an invaluable moral ideal, etc., then it is justifiable by reason. Good ideas that happened to have religious expressions are not in any way uniquely religious. They can be coopted without any big song and dance about how we are “learning from religion” in some distinctive way. Atheists can coopt a true moral principle without fearing that in some way this makes religions necessary or that it makes uniquely religious structures of belief and practice necessarily worthy of emulation.

Only if you can show that somehow specifically religious forms and practices are integral to true feeling of (or belief in) the morally important sense of the universality of shared humanity, is it important to stress that this idea comes from religion. But I think even a cursory view of history shows that not only does a feeling of the universality of shared moral humanity not have its roots in uniquely religious forms and practices but that the exact opposite is true. Routinely, religions intensely unite tribes, subcultures, and/or whole nations of shared participants to each other and against outsiders.

The greatest force for creating a sense of shared and universal humanity with shared moral obligations derived therefrom has been secularism—with its celebration (in distinct contrast to the widespread religious mistrust) of all the ways we are all commonly part of the world.

Your Thoughts?

More of my critical reading of Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists:

Why I Bother Writing About the Boring Question of Whether Religious Beliefs Are True

Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers

The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity

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Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • ktnevl


  • julian

    Religion is very good at bringing people together when there is a common enemy or hate. For example, gay marriage where religious leaders from every major Christian denomination and Judaism came together to warn against the ‘erosion of the family’ and the ‘diminishment of the sanctity of marriage.’

    I’m not trying to score cheap shots or blows but it as been impossible in my mind to remove the overt and clear examples of discrimination from the supposed wonders of community life and bridge building that religion is being credited with. It seems to be almost an inevitable aspect of its ‘outreach.’

  • Bret

    I liked the historical inconsistencies and the fact that I got to learn a new word (elide).

    I think you went a tad overboard here:

    He celebrates the universal brotherhood of mankind. Because we’re all men and so that makes us all brothers.

    I don’t think those terms are meant to be taken quite so literally, to the exclusion of women. Do you think John Lennon was excluding women when he sang of a “brotherhood of man?” I don’t.

    Though while we’re on the topic of excluding women, you brought up Kant. I’m fairly sure I remember him being a bit sexist when I read some of his works. I think you’ll find that it’s damn near impossible to find pre-feminist philosophy devoid of any misogyny (not that it’s all to uncommon in post-feminist philosophy, for that matter). I particularly remember Kant as being rather unenlightened on matters of marriage, sex, the body, and a woman’s role in the family.

    It’s sort of beside the point (as you point out that religious examples are, in fact, unnecessary), but there have been some very egalitarian religions (or at least societies that were heavily religious). The Norse come to mind, particularly in Iceland. Some try to make the case that the Icelandic Commonwealth formed in the 10th century was an early example of successful anarchy, though I find it to be far more akin to non-authoritarian democracy. I’m not particularly sure how women were treated there, but I can’t imagine it was as equals. It would have been beyond remarkable if this were the case, but I’m fairly sure women could own land (which is a tiny step in the right direction).

    But again, the Norse lack a universal application of basic rights, a common problem in every religion that comes to mind. Maybe certain iterations of Platonism, though I imagine the Greek attitudes towards barbarians might be an insurmountable obstacle in those times. Buddhism might also be close, but I would have to read up on it more while keeping this thought in mind, though I am fairly sure women are still given orders to subordinate to men (I know this to be the case with the clergy, though I am unsure of the laity).

    • Daniel Fincke

      I think you went a tad overboard here:

      He celebrates the universal brotherhood of mankind. Because we’re all men and so that makes us all brothers.

      I don’t think those terms are meant to be taken quite so literally, to the exclusion of women.

      Of course he wasn’t being literal. I went a tad overboard on purpose, to rhetorically make a point. The real point I was driving at was not that de Botton does not consider women part of humanity but that secular movements, and among them feminism as much as any other, have advanced the cause of human inclusiveness way more than distinctly religious ideas or movements ever did.

      I was noting in particular that it was fitting that de Botton’s own choice of phrase, taken from a religious context, implicitly encodes the precisely flawed religious view that really it is only men that matter. Even if he didn’t mean it that way, by lazily and uncritically adopting that obsolete and exclusionary formulation of humanity “mankind”, he was not even disguising religion’s shortcoming in this regard. Had he been someone properly up to speed on secular advances in values he would have seen the value in updating the formulation to be properly inclusive. He wasn’t. He was too focused on revering religion to either get his facts right about it or to adequately whitewash them.

  • mnb0

    My thought? If God is Love, as so many Abrahamists claim, then God must have decided about 200 years ago to become an atheist, sick of all the religious inspired violence as he must have become.
    God is Love implies that religion is a failure.

  • smrnda

    When people contrast a wonderful “universal brotherhood” type love with an obviously “selfish” (according to them) love which is more or less just a particular fondness for some people we happen to like more than others (I think most people aren’t looking for The One necessarily but even if they had a solid life partner would probably still like a bit more of a social scene.)

    The idea that we should love everybody the same in some “universal brotherhood” (which, again, am I excluded from because I’m female) is holding people to a more ridiculous and impossible ideal than any belief that the right romantic partner will fix everything. First off, we’re obviously not going to be able to love everybody the same since it’s pretty tough to love people you don’t know. Secondly, it’s not always easy to hit it off with everybody – this is why some people become friends and others don’t, and why people seek out others with common interests.

    It’s pointless to try to make ourselves ‘love’ or even like most people, but it’s not pointless to fight for a society where everybody at least gets some dignity and a decent standard of living. At the same time, I can’t call this ‘love’ at all; it seems like just a commitment to basic human rights which we want because all the people we do not know and don’t love personally we understand are probably loved and love a lot of other people, personally, just like us and everyone we care for.

    If people were so much better when they were driven by religion, why was it always so tribalistic when religion was more dominant? Why are highly secular nations doing so well at ensuring a high standard of living and economic security and have low crime rates?

    His blither-blather sounds a lot like the Focus on the Family jab at people who they argue are ‘too picky’ about who they choose to marry or get into a relationship with, since obviously it’s better to have low standards and to be willing to marry and shack up with anybody who shares your religious beliefs. Listen, relationships have to work, and you should put a lot of thought into who you end up with. People expect something other than a life of ‘commitment’ which sounds like drudgery to me.