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

Alain de Botton has caused a stir in the atheist blogosphere, and particularly here at Freethought Blogs, with his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. More specifically he caused waves with his article on CNN , which is heavy on selections from the book, and which begins as follows:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.” Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

Now, in principle I share an interest in exploring what good things may be reclaimed from religion which are presently falsely taken to be the exclusive (or even proper!) province of authoritarian, faith-based religions. But I am not certain I will agree with de Botton in the particulars of what we should take from religions and what we should leave. And, while I understand, the first line of his article (for reasons I will spell out in some detail), I essentially loathe, and want to strongly contest, his attitude towards those of us challengers of religious beliefs that he unfairly mischaracterizes as “fanatics”.

First, my sympathies with Mr. de Botton.

Questions with obvious answers are boring from a philosophical or a scientific point of view. This is a point I have long been planning to mention on my blog as part of explaining what often impels me (and Eric Steinhart) to explore more complicated questions about religion’s possible value and not just focus on its easily refutable falsehoods. The propositional claims which religious traditions and their theologians make about supernatural personal gods and their magical doings are so patently false as to seem to most intellectuals to be an utter waste of time to refute. The questions we normally want to ask about any subject are the ones whose satisfactory answers are not so bleedingly obvious to nearly anyone who is simply willing to actually apply minimal critical thinking skills to them.

Most academics are not interested in the question of whether religious beliefs are true not because they are uninterested in reality or find truth itself boring, but because they would like to spend their time actually discovering something new about reality—new truths which cannot be discovered while one is shooting fish in a barrel. This is the obvious reason why we do not have academic journal articles devoted to refuting every clearly false statement some religion makes.

So to most intellectuals who are interested in learning something when thinking about religion, the question of whether supernatural beings intervene in the world is a pointless question to have anywhere on the agenda. Whenever it is raised, the answer is simple: “No. Next question!”

Actual puzzles about religion are questions like, “Why is religion here?” “Why is it so persistent and even resurgent over a century after Nietzsche declared God dead?” “Is it eradicable and, if so, how?” “Why has natural selection among memes favored it so maddeningly despite its falseness and all the attendant harms that come with false beliefs?” “Is it merely a memetic parasite or might it have some advantage giving characteristics to those who have it?” “Is there anything of value that is presently found in religions that has not yet been satisfactorily replicated in superstition-free/authoritarianism-free secular forms?” “Are there ways to learn techniques for community building and values inculcation from religions without replicating the authoritarian and sectarian cultishness of existing religions?”

These are interesting questions. Atheists looking to move on from faith-based, authoritarian, patriarchal, regressive religions to either a wholly self-sufficient secular society which makes no use of religions whatsoever or to a secular religion purified of the vices of faith-based religions, should be vigorously and open-mindedly asking such questions. Whether or not de Botton does a good job at this is a different question which I will critically explore in several coming posts as I make my way through Religion for Atheists. I’ve just started reading it. But I do not find the assertion that “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’” problematic insofar as he is only spelling out that it is so obviously false that if we are to be intellectually, ethically, and socially constructive we should have more truth-productive lines of inquiry.

It is much like telling someone who is obsessed with whether a literary story is true that the least interesting thing about literature is whether it is based on true stories. What literature has to offer quite often has little to do with literal truth. Whatever is of potentially redeemable value in religion is similarly not to be found in the literal truth of its claims. It is in its techniques for connecting people and for helping them connect their ethics and metaphysics to practices which express and reinforce them.

But even though I understand where de Botton is essentially coming from in one sense, I also find his blanket dismissal of the value of atheist discussions of the truth of religious beliefs to be pretty clueless and unhelpful. He contemptuously trivializes all our attempts to dispel religious believers of their errors and uncharitably demonizes us when he writes in Religion for Atheists (Kindle Locations 47-50):

Attempting to prove the non-existence of God can be an entertaining for atheists. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs. Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.

Contrary to de Botton’s characterization, I do not spend so much of my precious time refuting false religious beliefs because it is “entertaining”. Nor is it because I want to “show up my enemies”, nor because I think of religious believers as “thorough-going simpletons” or “maniacs”. Really—what is “entertaining” about showing the ways that an obvious falsehood is false? Maybe laughing with marvel at some of the absurdities that people can believe with a straight face is fun in a cathartic sort of way. But soberly facing head on the fact that otherwise fully educable people believe such patent nonsense in the 21st Century and that they allow their delusions to influence their ethics and politics is not entertaining at all, but alarming and angering.

And intricately picking through all the obfuscations and illogical twists and turns of their absurd theological and philosophical rationalizations is tedious philosophical labor that is only worth it if it has the benefit of making what should be clear to everyone finally obvious to the billions of people who have been conditioned through enormously powerful techniques to cling to them with an iron grip as a matter of their most fundamental identity. Too much educational effort and philosophical creativity has to be expended on the obvious when it could be spent on illuminating more fruitful questions. That’s just the way things are when so many people are systematically deceived and repressed by religious falsehoods.

I think I speak for all the New Atheists–even those most notoriously and unabashedly curt with believers–when I say that I do not do this out of the desire to make anyone feel stupid or crazy, but rather to help them become at last capable of sifting some really obvious facts from really obvious fictions for themselves, that they may engage with reality better and live better lives accordingly. I think that having more truths increases people’s autonomy as it makes possible better informed, and therefore more genuine, choices. I think that removing the clutter of encumbering falsehoods makes people’s decisions more likely to be better both for themselves and for those who are impacted by their beliefs and actions. This is my motive. No smug superiority enters the picture, at least for me. I don’t see the world as made up of people who are simply smart atheists or simply dumb people of faith, where debates about ideas are just opportunities for asserting one’s identity or attacking another’s. I don’t think the religious are so stupid and defenseless that they need to be spared the indignity and embarrassment of having their “pathetic” ideas “pedantically” picked apart in public.

I take the time to meticulously dissect the flaws in faith-based beliefs precisely because I do not believe that the non-atheist is so hopelessly simple-minded or maniacal that they are beyond reason. I do not just write them off as inherently faith-believers and then just tend to “my own kind” and our replacement institutions. We all share reason, we all share humanity, and most of us share sanity. We can reason together and most people are smart enough and sane enough to change their minds if only they can overcome the inordinately powerful conditioning that their religions have given them. de Botton may have so impoverished an imagination or sense of compassion that he cannot imagine any other reason that an atheist might deign to critically discuss religion with believers besides cruel sport.  But some us actually perceive religious believers as our equals and worthy of our patient treatment of their ideas.

de Botton’s mischaracterization of people like me is insultingly simplistic. It is self-serving to his apparent desire to pit himself as a wise moderate beset on both sides by those who he paints with a black and white brush as equally fanatics. I unequivocally reject the false choice he offers between salvaging whatever may be good in religions, on the one hand, and criticizing the false beliefs and anti-rational training in belief religions give, on the other.

I happily seek both what is of value in religion which may not yet have been adequately replicated in secular forms, while also staying wary of, and unapologetically denouncing, religion’s unique dangers. And I happily seek out new, constructive questions about the actual nature and dynamics of religion, while also doing my part as an educator to combat the pervasive falsehoods that billions of people believe and live by. Religious traditions not only impede the development of adequate critical thinking skills but they actively train people in fallacious habits of thinking and believing. And they actively repress and regress worthwhile ethical and political development. Writing and speaking vigorously about religions’ falsehoods is a civic obligation for all public atheists who care about their fellow human beings’ freedom from authoritarian institutions and about their freedom to think and act according to the light of reason.

This is not fanaticism. This is precisely the kind of concern for morality and for our fellow human being that de Botton claims irreligious atheists do not yet have and which we need to learn from religion (and through him, of course). New Atheism is the movement already uniting atheists in community and in common moral cause. We have New Atheism to thank for the increasing identity-consciousness among atheists. That de Botton recoils from us as fanatics maybe betrays that he likes the idea of morally adamant, identity-forming atheist community that rivals religions more in theory than in actual practice. Maybe his implicit contempt extends in fact not only to the theistically religious but to the atheistically so as well.

But more on that as we go.

In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

Follow up posts on de Botton’s book:

Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers

The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity

About Daniel Fincke

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.

  • John Morales

    Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

    Probably The most relevant question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

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

      Relevant to what, is the question.

    • John Morales

      Relevant to societies and their members, most importantly.

      When mores, customs and laws are based on (or influenced by) false and dogmatic claims, it both stunts society and leads to conflict — the former because it retards progress by wasting effort on dead ends and punishing change, and the latter because while there is only one truth, there are many falsehoods, and they tend to clash with each other.

      (Secularism is a stop-gap solution, but it’s had palpable benefits to those societies that encourage it)

  • Steve Schuler

    I know very little about Alain de Botton, my only exposure to his thinking being a video of a brief presentation of his at a TED seminar in which he pitched his idea that secularists might consider trying to borrow some aspects of religion in building a stronger and more viable secularism. He also offered some critiscisms of New Atheists as part of his presentation, although he did not dwell on that topic. The presentation was very short and I found his ideas neither offensive nor particularly moving.

    This preceded the recent FTB blowup surrounding his CNN article which seemed to stir quit a bit of emotional response from some people. I did not find this very surprising as in the brief time that I have been looking at FTB blogs I have seen issues that are largely concerned with the internal politics of the atheist movement have been a fairly frequent subject of blog posts and their associated commentary. One of the things that I lkike about your blog is that you tend not to get caught up in the emotion of these controversies and that, when you do offer an opinion or perspective, it tends to be a pretty clear-heased assessment of a situation that takes into consideration multiple aspects of an issue. Unfortuantely, this level of thought seems to be somewhat atypical of New Atheists in general, at least in my limited exposure to New Atheism. Still, I do not doubt that the more strident voices in the movement make a contribution to promoting social progress.

    Of course it is much easier to criticize the efforts of others than to make a really meaningful contribution oneself, so take these musings for what they are worth.

  • http://ussromantics.wordpress.com/ stewart

    An excellent piece. I haven’t read de Botton’s book though I’ve read a couple of his other books which I found entertaining but not particularly deep. I must admit that on reading the first quote from his book given here, the term ‘fanatical atheists’ jumped out at me, and especially the way he ‘balances’ the term against ‘fanatical believers’. How many times do we have to be subjected to this ‘plague on both your houses’ crud from self-styled moderates? I heavily critiqued this shallow positioning in a review of Howard Jacobson’s presentation of ‘Creation’ in the BBC series ‘The Bible: a history’.
    http://ussromantics.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/creation-stories-a-critique-and-an-appreciation/
    You are right of course about the tedious rather than entertaining nature of the debunking arguments atheists must necessarily engage in. I don’t know how many times I’ve hesitated before embarking on this sort of thing, wondering if it’s worth the effort. Then I recall how many people I’ve read about and even met who have questioned and/or abandoned their faith through reading ‘The God Delusion’ – people who were just waiting, it seemed, for something so unequivocal to give them the courage to assert their doubts or their loss of faith. Of course there are many questions about religion more interesting to atheists than whether supernatural entities exist, but as long as people in high places, such as Catholic Popes, Moslem Ayatollahs and evangelical Presidents, have the power to impose their imagined religious truths and laws on others, exposing their false and often pernicious claims remains a priority.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I think this is a good post. I’ve been extremely disappointed by the rather shallow and mean responses de Botton’s writing has received, because I think his general project is a valuable one (although he chose a way to present it that was almost designed to push the anger-buttons of people in the New Atheist Community). I’m glad you are actually reading the book, which is something most of the critics have not done (including, as far as I can tell, a number of reviewers).

    I think you are rather too harsh on the issue of “fanaticism” – the idea that he is speaking to “people like you” when talking about “fanatics” seems patently false, since you have a much broader project than some, and the suggestion that he is doing so to serve a desire to position himself “as a moderate” within the broader atheosphere seems absurd, considering he is a prominent writer from the UK who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t give a damn about our internal disputes. I think he’s honestly describing how he sees the landscape, and that we should take note of the fact that he does view some of us as “fanatical” in some way.

    There’s also something very interesting in the (dare I say it) tone of your piece. You call his mischaracterization (as you see it) “insulting” and suggest he is displaying “contempt”. This strikes me as way over-the-top. “Contempt”?

    Finally, on the issue of New Atheism being a community building movement, I’m not sure I entirely agree. While working on the HCP I’ve been travelling a lot to different groups around the country and speaking to members about their desire for community and other topics (this is part of our research aim). And I find self-identified New Atheists are frequently most skeptical about community building – particularly the sort of “morally adamant, identity-forming atheist communities” you describe, which they often see as dangerously “religious” (our efforts have frequently been described as a “cult” by New Atheist commentators, for example).

    It is the HUUmanists, Ethical Culturists and other Religious Humanists, alongside who seem most excited about the possibility of such communities, while self-identified New Atheists are wary even of community service projects a lot of the time (although many such individuals participate when offered the chance).

    I think what’s most interesting about the De Botton book and the backlash it has created within our own community is that it surfaces our ambivalent feelings regarding community, personal “spiritual” practice, our ability to draw on religions for community-building advice etc. And it is striking that it is indeed the self-identified New Atheist bloggers who are leading the charge against the proposals.

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

      Hi James, I think the paradox is that the identity-atheists inspired by the New Atheists is de facto a community building movement but it’s in denial about this. If you click on my link above to my article on New Atheism as a moral movement (from that paragraph at the end) you’ll see the ways that it implicitly is doing the work of advancing a robust moral vision even though the people doing this are totally queasy about owning up to that in many cases.

      The identity-atheists often have PTSD about religion and so are wary of formal associations but are simultaneously enthusiastically embracing an atheist identity, movement, media, etc. in the brass tacks way that the sideline critics of New Atheists don’t inspire with their “just calm down and leave religion alone” message.

      You’re somewhere in the middle, of course.

      Finally, calling someone a fanatic is contemptuous of them. It’s looking down with disdain on their reasoning and practice.

      And while de Botton may not think he targets me but only the more unrestrained atheists who I also have some qualms with, he sloppily lumps all who are interested debating the truth of religion in together with his careless language. This is the point of my insistence. I will not turn my back on the New Atheists but will associate as one of them against anyone who casts critical openness to aspects of religion in a “leave religious falsehoods alone!” vein.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      I wouldn’t say you’re “focused obsessively” on the question of the truth of religion – I think one of the best qualities of this blog is your willingness to address other questions. This would seem to me to put you squarely outside the delineated category. But if you feel you are inside it, fair enough (although if calling someone “fanatical” about something is “contemptuous” I have no idea what words I have left to use for even more strongly-worded criticisms).

      I think your analysis of the two-mindedness of some atheists regarding community is spot-on. I’ve often pointed out to people after my talks, when they say they don’t want to go to meetings and do church-like things, that they are in fact sitting at a meeting at that moment engaged in a discussion about their values. People sometimes seem surprised to recognize that they are, in fact, where they are! But this is far from the enthusiastic embrace of intentional moral communities I and (to a certain extent) De Botton promote. One of the important things about the Humanist communities we seek to build is precisely that the people that attend them do so out of an explicit commitment to a set of values – and many New Atheists become extremely wary when you begin talking of community life beyond the pub brunch.

      As for “being in the middle”, I actually don’t see myself as in the middle of anything very meaningful. I consider myself a Humanist, with an equal commitment to compassion and reason which sees me want to temper my criticism of religion with respect for religious people, and a desire to build a better world based on these two commitments.

      I’m with Sagan. Was he in the middle? =D

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

      Where my obsessive focus on the truth of religion lies is in that when you read my posts on learning from religion, I relentlessly stress that faith is bad and that atheistic religion must be rigorously subordinated to reason and autonomy, otherwise it will probably be as disastrous as all other religions (including Ayn Rand’s cult of Objectivism).

      My views and yours always seem very close in substance. I just think that New Atheism is the rallying flag and it is, as we agree, implicitly creating the community even if most of its members need to be coaxed (as I’m trying to do) to self-consciously embrace that they are a values and identity and community movement. I think the line in the sand that truth is of paramount importance is the New Atheists’ line. I don’t think that it’s fair to any of the paradigm New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett) to imply that New Atheism is distinguished by belligerent language or inherent hostility to learning from religion. Harris advocates coopting transcendental meditation. Dennett explicitly gave a talk where he went over numerous ways to secularize religious practices, including giving an example of a secular hymn. Dawkins himself in the God Delusion discusses something that Eric Steinhart identifies as something like a religious naturalism. I have to go read it again and see what he’s referring to and I don’t have the book on me. Hitchens, when asked, said he wouldn’t prefer that religions be obliterated if it could happen. His reasons were strange but, whatever.

      Point is that there is and always has been more nuance to the New Atheists explicit positions and more constructive behavior among “Movement Atheists” inspired by them (even if they do not embrace what they are doing explicitly in the categories of morality or community or identity).

    • jflcroft

      I think you hit on something important when you note the insistence of New Atheists on the primacy of reason – I do think that is a dividing line and one which it is very important to stick to. I don’t really agree that truth is of “paramount” important – I think I’d say that human welfare is of paramount importance, and that seeking understanding (I tend to avoid truth for epistemological reasons)serves that purpose. But generally this puts me squarely behind the New Atheists in their endeavors.

      It’s good, too that you point to the other aspects of the Horsemen’s arguments which are often overlooked. If you have a link to the Dennett speech you mention I’d love to see it.

      What’s very interesting to me, though, is the very fact that these aspects of their writing are indeed frequently overlooked, not only by critics of their work but by their supporters. If, for example, you were to tell some readers of this site that Dennett would like to secularize religious practices then I guarantee you would get many blanks stares and some angry denials.

      I think this points to a very important point about communication: even if their work should not be seen as “distinguished by belligerent language or inherent hostility to learning from religion”, it is so seen by many. And that means they are not communicating effectively, even to their own supporters.

      I think Sagan is again the touchstone here: he had a commitment to reason every bit as strong as the New Atheists (perhaps stronger, in some ways), but very few people would have misinterpreted him so thoroughly as the NA’s are misinterpreted. And I thnk that’s because he had a very different approach when it came time to speak to people with whom he disagreed.

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

      I think people are naturally dualistic in their thinking. They like to cut things up into as big either/or’s as they can and only when there is great pressure within a category resplit the category. What is most salient and culturally distinctive about the New Atheists is how relatively unrestrained their criticisms of religion are. This is what sells their books. The parts where they include reasonable balance gets glossed over probably because (a) it’s not as distinctive and (b) it’s not what separates those who gravitate to them from those who balk at them. Those who gravitate to them often see the bones thrown to religion as just periphery or metaphor because it’s not what’s primarily exciting them. Those who reject their overall anti-religiosity just glaze over it as meager concessions (maybe even insincere?). This seems to have happened recently when PZ and Greg Epstein debated and the Harvard Humanist website billed PZ’s remarks about the value of alternate approaches as Greg winning concessions from him. PZ (as I’m sure you saw) flipped out and called all of you “sleazy” for not grasping his nuance preexisted.

      This all makes sense to me given how bad and unnuanced we all naturally are as thinkers. My goal is to fight that by saying I am unapologetically a “New Atheist” and against gratuitous belligerence towards believers and open to atheists replacing more of the life enhancing things that theistic religions (and some atheists) falsely want to concede in perpetuity to authoritarianism, faith, and superstition.

      I don’t foreground or background any of these positions. I just rotate them and I always bring all of them up. I hope this makes it hard for anyone to be confused about my positions. I think this makes me look like an ally to be wary of to everyone on each side where people think there is a conflict between these positions and they are ranged against each other.

      Anyway, here’s the Dennett video I referred to where he talks about replacing religious forms with secular ones. Also check out this interview with Dennett that Pharyngula ran wherein Dennett talkes about playing good cop to the other New Atheists’ “bad cops”:

      I’ve been much more sympathetic to the fact that religions could do a lot of good for a lot of people, and we should keep close track of that, and try to find alternative ways of doing that good work, while I agree completely with the three about the evils. But I have wanted to stress the fact that it’s a mixed phenomenon and we should take seriously that good stuff that comes of it.

      If you think about it as a natural phenomenon, then you realize there are other natural phenomena like this too. Floods are terrible, but sometimes floods are good; they have a good side to them. Parasites can actually be good for you if you are too clean – if your childhood is too clean then you’re going to succumb; you should spend a little time in the mud and the dirt. These things are known, and I think that we should acknowledge that and not be afraid to acknowledge that there are times when the support that a religion can provide to an individual or a community or a nation is extremely valuable. It’s like medicine – strong medicine can have a really bad side effect, but sometimes you need a strong medicine.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Yeah, I think your analysis here is basically correct – people tend to see what is distinct and not see the nuance that is indeed there. Of course I’d disagree with your read of the PZ Greg debate (I think Greg highlighted some basic inconsistencies in PZ’s approach very effectively, and PZ’s reaction was characteristic but silly – he’s always liked to attack us for some reason), but then I would say that ;).

      Thanks for providing the Dennett link – I aporeciate it. I’ll take a look when RCN fixes my Internet connection *sigh*.

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

      I’d disagree with your read of the PZ Greg debate (I think Greg highlighted some basic inconsistencies in PZ’s approach very effectively, and PZ’s reaction was characteristic but silly – he’s always liked to attack us for some reason), but then I would say that

      I should clarify I have no read of the PZ Greg debate as I didn’t read it. I was just reporting PZ’s response. I didn’t mean to endorse it as accurate without hearing for myself. Calling you guys sleazy in either case seemed way over the top.

  • SAWells

    The question of whether the earth is round or flat is “boring” in the sense that the question was a definite answer and we’ve known what it is for a while now. If, however, governments were routinely funding large expensive expeditions to go to the edge of the world and look over it, it would be irresponsible for geographers to say “The most boring question you can ask about the earth is whether it’s round or flat.”

    Currently, large amounts of political power lie in the hands of people who think, wrongly, that gods exist and have policy preferences. For philosophers to describe the question of religious truth as “boring” is grossly irresponsible.

  • James Thompson

    This really jumped out at me:

    “…combat the pervasive falsehoods that billions of people believe and live by. Religious traditions not only impede the development of adequate critical thinking skills but they actively train people in fallacious habits of thinking and believing. And they actively repress and regress worthwhile ethical and political development. Writing and speaking vigorously about religions’ falsehoods is a civic obligation for all public atheists who care about their fellow human beings’ freedom from authoritarian institutions and about their freedom to think and act according to the light of reason.”

    Thanks that put a lot of my own jumbled thoughts into a concise statement.

  • leftwingfox

    Well said.

    This same thought’s been brewing in my mind too: there are certainly questions about the political and sociological natures of religion that focus more on how people act on their beliefs, rather than whether those beliefs are true.

    That underpins my support for the compromise of secularism instead of state-enforced atheism: the truth of atheism is “less important” than the political effects of government coercion and human attachment to belief systems and cultural identity.

    As you say, he sets up a nice little true statement, then wanders off implying that even if religion isn’t “true”, it’s “special” in some undefined way that secular or fantasy works aren’t. Thus religious art is “special” in a way fantasy or secular art isn’t, ignoring the possibilities that the only reason they are “special” is not because they are true, but because they relate to a deeply held identity. He doesn’t seem to consider that the uplifting sensation we ascribe to spirituality that a Christian pulls from Michelangelo’s Pieta might be nothing more than the thrill of validation a Superman fan gets from viewing an Alex Ross painting of the iconic suit-tearing reveal.

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

    My thoughts are no where near as well formed as yours of course Daniel, which is why you blog extensively and eloquently about important matters whilst I blog infrequently and crudely about how I avoided strangling my horrible children this week.

    Possible non sequiter…
    I would like to address how the New Atheist community is often dismissed as “identity politics”, of which i see some evidence in De Botton’s criticism, as well as other more explicitly accomodationist arguments. I find this dismissal horribly naive, especially in regards to American political culture. Not to go full metal marxist, but the struggle for equal rights is a political struggle and “Identity Politics” has proven itself a very valuable tool in the political tacklebox for decades. The womens movement, the civil rights movement, the lgbt movement all made strides by aggressively creating and nurturing a public political identity. We should be in my opinion actively encouraging an Atheist/secular/humanist identity to show that we are in fact a minority with serious political issues to bring to the arena. What that identity actually looks like, how broad and inclusive should it be …well that’s where the sausage is made, and mayhaps Yourself and Mr Croft are better at hashing out those details than a simple dad like myself. But I know that denying the utility of identity politics is playing into the hands of the reactionaries who always benefit when they can make us question our motives and split us into squabbling factions.

    I hope that makes sense…;) Now I gotts go take my iPad back from the three year old before he downloads any porn.

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

      No, great point, Lou (and it’s much harder to spend your time raising kids than typing one’s thoughts online…)

      To be clear, I haven’t read de Botton attack identity politics (I just think a lot of New Atheists haven’t fully accepted and owned that that’s what we’re up to in part and what is drawing many of them in so powerfully). My point was just that de Botton’s dismissal of the hardcore atheists as fanatics betrays that he does not understand that what we are is what his fantasies actually look like in real flesh and blood people. We’re building strong identities and unabashedly advocating moral values and, well, it looks a lot messier than in the schematics.

      But he didn’t directly attack our identity stuff, I just linked it as implicitly (in part) what’s underneath what he did attack.

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

      Told yah it was a bit of a nonsequiter… ;) Just something that this discussion has kicked loose in my Dora addled mind.

  • http://www.reason-being.com reasonbeing

    Great post–very well written. I struggle with de Botton’s criticism of atheists who see value in debunking religion. In today’s society, particularly in the U.S. religion is having a major effect. Our current political debate is heavily influenced by Christianity. Recent polls from Tuesday showed just how important a candidate’s religion is to their success and how important a voter’s religion is to their opinion on policy.

    When religion is going to play such an important role in our society, and when I find much of what religion stands for in modern times to be lacking, I do not feel I waste my time trying to debunk it.

    Thanks for writing Daniel. As always you state things in a very clear and concise manner.

  • Robert B.

    I’m still very dubious about the idea of trying to create a good religion. Trying to copy only part of a meme that powerful sounds awfully risky, you’d risk your new religion being contaminated with old bad ideas every time you brought a convert over. It’s entirely possible that the false and irrational aspects of religion are the very things that hold it together, and that a reasonable religion wouldn’t be stable.

    And frankly, it’s not like there aren’t successful non-religious groups to copy. Wouldn’t it be easier and safer to model ourselves on, say, academia, or science-fiction fandom, or political parties?

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

      I share your concerns and am intrigued by your idea at the end there, Robert.

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

      Although fandom has its own house to clean up (lots of mysoginy, sprinkled with racism and imperialism still clutter the fandom landscape), I can see the fan community as a great model for the kind of replacement for church that we sometimes crave in our community. In fact there’s already a lot of overlap. I remember one of the motto’s of an old Anime community I encountered “Peace through shared Popular Culture”

  • Kevin

    Precisely so. We spend time dissecting the truth claims of religion, because that’s the basis upon which they claim the right to tell us what to do.

    It’s the core of the dangerousness of religion. They claim to be speaking for a god (that exists) and demand that everyone everywhere around the world hew to their interpretation of how that god wants us to behave.

    No god = no moral authority = no right to insert their beliefs into the lives of others.

  • Sqrat

    Actual puzzles about religion are questions like… “Why has natural selection among memes favored [religion] so maddeningly despite its falseness and all the attendant harms that come with false beliefs?”

    A possible answer to this question is suggested by looking at the numbers of adherents of each of the three “Abrahamic” religions. To use the figures cited in the Wikipedia article on “major religious groups”:

    Christianity: 2 – 2.2 BILLION
    Islam: 1.3 – 1.65 BILLION
    Judaism: 14-18 MILLION

    What’s the obvious difference? Christianity and Islam each assert that they have a mandate from God to convert the entire world to the “one true faith” and have actually made determined efforts to do so. Judaism claims no such mandate. The implied lesson is that that any belief system that claims a mandate to spread itself throughout the world, and has a significant number of adherents who act on that mandate, potentially enjoys a major competitive advantage over rival belief systems.

    Atheism can obviously claim no divine mandate to convert everyone in the world into an atheist. That, in my opinion, automatically puts atheism at a significant disadvantage with Christianity and Islam. In turn, that suggests to me that it is necessary to promote “evangelical” atheism simply to offset the competitive advantage enjoyed by Christianity and Islam. I say “necessary” because certain forms of Christianity and Islam have demonstrated, not just that they are wrong, but that they are harmful and represent a serious danger to atheists as individuals and as a group — to us and to our posterity.

    In short, I think it is necessary to oppose the supposed divine mandate of Christianity and Islam to convert the world with, insofar as we can, a countervailing mandate to gain adherents to atheism simply for the purpose of self-protection and self-preservation.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    After reading Dan’s article and looking over da Botton’s comments again it reminded me of arguments that occurred within the U.S. abolitionist movement(s) that occurred all the way up to Lincoln’s emancipation act.

    There were two broad camps that seemed to persist through the ~100 years(!) of abolitionism. One I’d call the accommodationists, who wanted to use legal arguments to make owning slaves progressively more difficult and persuasion of slaveholders to voluntarily release slaves.

    The other side I’d call the activists, who were less interested in debating legal theory and talking nice to slaveholders and more interested in freeing every slave immediately, writing inflammatory newspapers and books, as well as occasionally committing explicitly illegal acts (such as the underground railroad and Brown’s raid).

    While the comparisons aren’t 1:1 obviously (religion isn’t as awful as slavery, New Atheists aren’t outright breaking the law), I see parallels in the broader question of “How does one stop injustice?”

    Looking back, the abolitionist accommodationists accomplished nothing at best, divided the abolitionist movement so that much of its energy was turned in on itself, help continue to legitimize slavery as something that was on a sliding scale instead of an absolute wrong, and arguably help perpetuate the practice of slavery by indirectly giving it an air of legitimacy even from critics.

    The activists drew a line in the sand, said, “This is now and always has been wrong, wrong, wrong,” and directly confronted supporters of slavery, often not being very nice about it.

    The accommodationists accomplished nothing. There was no movement of slaveholders giving up slaves or states voluntarily ending slavery laws.

    What gains that were made, in the North, was by the activists, who made slave ownership social distasteful, and by illegally liberating slaves in the South. Eventually the contradictions, problems, and injustice of slavery was made so obvious that abolition became the law of the land.

    While I’d never say that the institution of regions is immoral, many of the practices that fall under religion and are protected by that label are. While I would never advocate making religion illegal, there should be a continuing campaign from secular activists to create disgust and social disapproval at the immoral aspects of religion.

    What da Botton and such are essentially advocating is a non-confrontational accommodation approach that challenges nothing and no one, for the sake of not annoying people. Change only happens when activists annoy and agitate people to the point that past practices can no longer be something discussed in polite company.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      You may be a bit one-dimensional here. What I see de Botton doing is forsaking the tearing down of religion to begin the “interesting” project of building institutions that are functional replacements to today’s religious institutions in society. I don’t think we need to forsake the deconstruction of religion, but one thing that I also don’t see is enough people building social groups. By question of economy, we do have to learn what we want to spend our time on. A utilitarian argument about this would be that most people will not question an idea until it is safe to do so. By organizing real life communities with safety nets and some form of community promotion, we’ll enable people to question their beliefs with less psychological consequence. And let’s face it, when it comes to social groups, churches have the know-how, even if faith taints what can be useful concepts. I spent years in my church helping organize, set up, and tear down for events. I’ve not seen atheist organizations as well organized as their religious counterparts. Some of this probably has something to do with funding, but what can you do.

      I’m actually really tired of the firebrand/accommodationist debate because it really doesn’t do all that much. Personally, I can occupy many parts of the spectrum honestly and openly, so I’m really flexible when I interact with people. But no matter your inclination here, I think there’s hard work to be done in helping build permanent centers of community so that atheists can have the societal resources that religious people enjoy. You can still be a firebrand while creating something…you just won’t have the time to be a firebrand all the time.

    • julian

      The accommodationists accomplished nothing. There was no movement of slaveholders giving up slaves or states voluntarily ending slavery laws.

      This sounds to black and white to me. I am no expert on American history but, having some idea of how fundamental to much of U.S. society slavery was, I doubt the ‘activist’ position deserves all the credit. Especially when all the political tension I remember reading about was maneuvering between Northern and Southern legislatures to give each side more voice than the other in the form of House, Senate and electoral votes.

      The lines also don’t make sense to me. I doubt the firebrand approach was entirely composed of smuggling slaves out of the South or that ‘accomodationists’ wouldn’t have had some hand in that.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      Jubal DiGriz:

      The accommodationists accomplished nothing. There was no movement of slaveholders giving up slaves or states voluntarily ending slavery laws.

      What gains that were made, in the North, was by the activists, …

      The funny thing, though, is that the ones who are called accommodationists these days, that is, the ones who were earlier called members of “The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists,” are the ones who have been doing the brunt of the anti-creationist work. These are the people behind the court victory in Dover, for example. Of course, these so-called “accommodationists” are selective in who they accommodate. They’ll accommodate the religiosity of those who are useful allies, like Ken Miller or the plaintiffs in the Dover case. (Yes, both the plaintiffs and defendants were religious.) To the likes of Ken Ham or the cdesign proponentists, they are decidedly unaccommodating, which is what has made the whole “Neville Chamberlain” slur so absurd in addition to being offensive.

    • julian

      They’ll accommodate the religiosity of those who are useful allies

      Fun as a mercenary bet may be, many of the ‘allies’ being accommodated aren’t. At least not to those atheists outside the accommodationist group. When one of your biggest objections is faith being perceived as a virtue and demanded from others, it makes no sense to shake hands with people who believe everyone should be religious or everyone should in someway embrace religion.

    • julian

      are the ones who have been doing the brunt of the anti-creationist work

      forgot to mention

      Anti-Biblical creationism work, you mean. If you insist on credit where it is due, remember how narrow and limited the work has been.

  • Michael R

    I think the best way to pull people away from religion is through building strong humanist communities. This has far more power than trying to reason with them. Each approach has its place, but I’m glad that de Botton has kicked off Atheism 2.0.

    I agree with Alain that “The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly”. Contemporary humanism is too vague, individualistic and global in its outlook. People are more attracted to local communities with clear and precise values.

    Atheism 2.0 will not be a homogeneous movement, so there’s no need to worry about Alain’s particular take on things. Ideas develop through knowledge and free-thinking. How to build a flourishing humanism will be interpreted in many different ways: liberal, conservative, whatever. A diversity of humanist thought will see folks gravitate towards the most fulfilling lifestyle. On with the show.

    • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Agreed – I think the creation of positive, compelling alternatives to religious communities is one of the best ways to draw people down the Freethought road!

    • karmakin

      I think we’ve secularized the best we could considering the active role that religion has taken in trying to create monopolies on community.

      Considering the outright hostility we see towards non-belief community building, yup. I don’t see how it could have been done any better.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Well we should remember de Botton is writing from the UK where the situation is very different to the USA. I think the difference in religious climate does make his proposals more fitting to a European environment.

    • karmakin

      I actually think he’s more wrong (less right?) from a European perspective, as in my understanding is that Europe has more secular community structures than the US does.

    • karmakin

      I should say, unless he’s taking the approach that a top-down church-like structure is the only one that “counts”, which is an attitude that I reject entirely.

      Here’s the thing. I’m actually sympathetic to his point of view. I by and large agree with it, in the abstract. I personally think that the main solid point of religion is one of catharsis (shared emotion), and when we’re trying to “replicate” what church and religion provide, that’s what we’re actually trying to replicate.

      And there’s lots of secular options for it. Going to the movies, going to a concert, a book club, some sort of organized (or not so organized) sport, trivia night at the pub, etc. I just don’t think that church-esque structures, I.E. sermons and music and all that, are needed. I don’t think that non-theistic church-esque structures are bad, of course. Again, I just don’t think they’re absolutely necessary.

      And under the circumstances, there is plenty of secular cathartic activities. Hell, the internet is made of ‘em. I simply don’t think things are really that dire, at least on that front. (Where they are dire is that as the world becomes more and more secular, there’s a number of religionists who become more and more inclined to prove their power in the world)

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Your position is one that I encounter frequently when I talk about the Humanist Community Project – people like the idea in principle but think the relevant needs are already fulfilled by existing secular structures. My difficulty with that approach is that I do not feel that secular structures adequately fulfill all the needs addressed by religious spaces.

      I think we have lots of needs – what I like to call “existential” needs – which many people feel are left unmet by things like movies and book clubs. Further, I would like a physical place to go to which houses a community which shares my values – places dedicated to reason, compassion and hope, hubs for service and activism, places which tell the story of Humanism and encourage others to become Humanists. Such spaces exist only rarely right now, and I’d love to see one in every single town.

      As for the design of it (whether it is a church model or something else – and let’s remember that many churches are “bottom-up” rather than “top-down”, growing from a community and run democratically), I see that as an institutional design problem which we need to use our intellect to solve. I don’t think we should take any structure unwittingly from any other institution, but should design for ourselves spaces conducive to our flourishing and representative of the highest ideals of Humanism.

  • Sheesh

    Forgive me:

    Some of your puzzling questions didn’t seem like puzzles to me.

    “Why is religion here?”
    Because it wasn’t immediately obvious where the sun went at night.

    “Why is it so persistent and even resurgent over a century after Nietzsche declared God dead?”
    Tribalism’s support for hierarchy and authoritarianism and vice versa.

    “Is there anything of value that is presently found in religions that has not yet been satisfactorily replicated in superstition-free/authoritarianism-free secular forms?”
    No.

    “Are there ways to learn techniques for community building and values inculcation from religions without replicating the authoritarian and sectarian cultishness of existing religions?”
    No.

    That said, great piece as usual. This next bit stuck out to me:

    But soberly facing head on the fact that otherwise fully educable people believe such patent nonsense in the 21st Century and that they allow their delusions to influence their ethics and politics is not entertaining at all, but alarming and angering.

    Yes, when you’re rich, sheltered, and privileged enough to say out loud “I’m an atheist” without getting fired and being hounded out of your neighborhood I imagine the truth of religious claims is pretty boring. Of course, many of us live in the U.S. so countering these assholes actually, immediately matters. Destroying religious privilege pretty much rests on destroying the “faith in faith” and dualism. Both of those memes intersect pretty squarely with truth claims and epistemology and shit, so it seems like that’s a good place to start. Right?

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    He’s making the mistake of conflating interesting with important. Whether religion is true may not be interesting, but since people are trying to make policy recommendations and life decisions based on the idea it is true, it’s important. His own idea is interesting, but I figure we can just rip off all the ceremonies from Star Trek and be done with it.

  • jamessweet

    If de Botton didn’t feel so compelled to throw gnu atheists under the bus, I would be defending him on a number of points. It’s fine that his approach to a post-religious world is different from PZ’s; what’s NOT fine is misrepresenting and demonizing those of us who are more outspoken against belief itself.

    Some atheists long for the sorts of ritualized community that religion provides; some do not. In the United States, probably more of us fall into the latter category, because if we were natural “joiners” we’d be more inclined to hold our noses and swallow the dogma anyway, given the social climate.

    I feel like I have sort of a unique insight into this, because I do not miss the ritualized community aspect, but my wife does. She’s even dragged the family to a couple of UU churches, looking for something we could go to on a regular basis. I can’t stand it! And it has very little to do with philosophical or epistemological objections, though I do have a couple of those as well… mostly, I just don’t like it. She likes it.

    Neither of us are broken, it’s just that not everyone has to like everything. I think PZ and folks like him (and me) can be guilty of forgetting that sometimes, too. And very certainly folks like de Botton have forgotten that.

  • http://www.secularcafe.org/index.php davidb

    Good piece as usual.

    Just impressions, but my impression is that de Botton mis-characterises atheists rather badly, and call me cynical if you like, but I also get the impression that his prime aim is to make a name for himself.

    I have been, personally, somewhat politicised by a long period of exposure to the damage that believing in religion can do, in terms of ostracising apostates, especially children, and seeking to impose views on other.

    As an ex-cultist myself, I’ve looked at on-line support groups for ex-Mormons, ex-JWs etc, as well as websites exposing the cult that sucked me in, decades ago now, the Transcendental Meditation movement.

    Similar stories from all of them. Lots of mutual support within the cults, to the point of being positive reinforcement for believing in things that are out of touch with reality.

    Of course some varieties of religion are less toxic than others, of course there are mitigating features in terms of comfort and mutual support, but, as well as simply building lives on false premises, there are damaging effects as well, more so in some cases than others.

    I am involved, as you know Daniel, in a small on-line community, where people can socialise on-line, learn from others and teach each other all sorts of things, quarrel and make up, but importantly to provide support for people who have left religion, sometimes at personal cost.

    And, in the case of religious people who surf on in, to try and find out their sticking points, and explore them with them.

    I have some ideas about what those sticking points often are, but that is another matter.

    David B

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs Alan Cooper

    I pretty much agreed with everything in your next two posts in the deBotton series, but coming back to this one I have a couple of reservations.

    Although I agree that the label “fanatical atheists” is offensive (where “evangelical” would in my opinion not be!), I do share deBotton’s lack of interest in arguing about the “truth” of religious stories. There may be some who take such stories literally and are amenable to reason so I don’t say your time arguing the case is wasted, but it sure isn’t where I prefer to spend my efforts. In fact I do think that too many evangelical atheists think they have done the job by making an argument that the naive believer will ignore and that other believers will be unswayed by because they actually already agree that the stories are not literally true and their faith in them is only as some kind of moral guide (or perhaps more strongly as something like “the best possible expression of supreme moral truths”). Or whatever…but in any case the question of literal truth is often an irrelevant distraction from that of their questionable value as a moral guide.


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