James Croft vs. Alain de Botton

A couple months ago, James Croft was urging us here at Freethought Blogs to give Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion a fair reading before trashing it. I started doing that, planning to respond to the whole book section by section. Within just a few chapters I was thoroughly disgusted with it and, truth be told, somewhat furious at James for pushing the book so relentlessly. This is because James and I share a strong interest in seeing atheists build the necessary humanist traditions, philosophies, communities, and infrastructures to rival authoritarian, faith-based religions with viable rationalistic, anti-authoritarian alternative means of meeting the sorts of needs that people presently sell their souls and minds to have met. Specifically we also share an interest in plundering religions for the good things they have unjustly monopolized or falsely claimed as their exclusive domains, and purifying them in order to redeem their genuine value. I saw quickly that Alain de Botton was offering a combination of banalities and morally appalling suggestions in his book and wanted to distance myself and projects like Croft’s from him as much as possible. It baffled and irritated me that Croft was not similarly disassociating himself from de Botton, but rather saying things that led me to believe he supported all this sloppiness.

Surprisingly, James eventually wound up reviewing the book and sharing many of my sentiments:

Is secular society as lacking as de Botton claims, and are religions the best place to look for remedies? Probably not. The primary flaw of Religion for Atheists is a lack of balance: he praises religion’s benefits while overlooking many of its flaws, while under-valuing the potential of human beings and the achievements of secular society. For instance, much of de Botton’s argument rests on an excessively dim view of humankind in which adults are really just like children, moments away from indulging our worst selves. He emphasizes that because “we are all in the end rather infantile, incomplete, unfinished, easily tempted and sinful,” we therefore require institutions and rituals to keep us in line. This view of human nature sits uneasily with the humanist emphasis on the goodness, dignity, and capability of human beings, both individually and in groups, and undercuts somewhat his arguments about the value of culture as a corrective. After all, it is the very same “infantile” people who create the culture that de Botton hopes will save us.

Further, de Botton displays an equally pessimistic attitude toward the achievements of secular society. If psychotherapy is inconsistent and ramshackle, it is at least responsive to individual needs and respectful of the peculiar circumstances of life. The very uniformity and standardization de Botton praises in the confessional booth do promise a standard level of “spiritual service,” but also rely on dogmatically defined notions of sin that fail to reflect individual experience. Secular responses to human suffering may, therefore, be better than de Botton contends.

At the same time, religion’s penchant for offering “guidance” might be much worse than he allows. Decrying what he sees as a “libertarian obsession with freedom” that infects secular society, de Botton argues in favor of the guiding hand that religions tend to offer, without giving any consideration to the fact that, too often, that same guiding hand has become a ruling fist. Indeed, the book suffers from a failure to recognize any dangers at all that might accrue if secular society were to consciously attempt to draw on religious practices. An appreciation of the potential pitfalls of his attempt to reclaim and repurpose religious practices would have gone a long way toward forestalling some of the criticism the work has received from other atheists.

Read More.

My own posts on the possibilities and pitfalls for reclaiming practices presently associated with religion include the following:

Answering Greta: My Goals As An Atheist Writer

Islam, 9/11, and “True Religion” (Or “What Could George W. Bush Have Meant When Talking About True Islam?”)

The Dangers of Religion Itself 

My own criticisms of de Botton’s book are developed in the posts:

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

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

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • Mattir

    I have loved several of De Botton’s books (Consolations of Philosophy, Art of Travel especially), but slogged my way through RFA and had a great deal of difficulty not hitting my iphone (audible is my friend) with a hammer. He’s got a classic outsider idealization of Roman Catholicism, has no idea how religion actually works in real people’s lives, and knows almost nothing about either Buddhism or Judaism. There was over-the-top sexism (especially in the description of how a generic male person goes into a chapel to meditate on the imaginary compassionate gaze of the madonna) and racism (using African American religious rhetorical styles to teach poetry at Oxbridge? really?).

    I have seldom been so disappointed by a writer, but de Botton has helped me formulate a rule: when atheist/humanist people who don’t identify as part of the New Atheist movement start making pronouncements about it, they are almost certain to be full of herbivore feces… It’s actually sort of sad.

  • skepticalmath

    I’ve always had a lot of respect for Croft. Quite pleased that he wasn’t — as I had thought — taken in by de Botton’s book.

  • jflcroft

    Thanks for posting this – I am not, as some seem to have imagined, soft in the head. There are many significant flaws in de Botton’s analysis which need to be criticized. What I wanted to highlight when the book first came out was two things – first, the (to me elementary) principle that those criticizing the ideas contained in a book should actually read all of it. Even if it is utterly atrocious. I think this a simple matter of intellectual honesty.

    Second, I wanted to try to inject some critical balance. Despite the flaws there are valuable suggestions in the book and the outlook is, I think, broadly correct – he has put his finger on a series of problems with the way certain societies (not all) have secularized which need addressing. What frustrated me about some of the analysis was the seeming unwillingness to take anything of value from the book. Even in very bad books there are sometimes extremely valuable ideas. And I think the opprobrium heaped upon de Botton for this book was out of proportion to the weaknesses of the book.

  • mepmep09

    {Apologies if duplicate; no sign of the first attempt to comment}

    I just heard an interview with Alain De Botton on public radio program Interfaith Voices.* You can listen to it there online, or download the .mp3 (8.3MB). It runs just over 18 minutes.

    I’m not sure which he mischaracterizes worse, religion (favorably) or atheism (not so favorably). He’s mighty big on broad, sweeping generalities. I didn’t read most of the reviewer comments over at the Amazon page for this book, but I think the top two one-star reviewers nicely summarized my problems with what he said during the interview.

    Maybe a couple micro-nuggets of interest there, but not much until the end, when the host asks him (paraphrasing), ‘if you think religion has so much to offer, why are you an atheist?’ An interesting question, and his answer seemed plausible to me.

    *FYI, the show is hosted by Maureen Fiedler; a Catholic nun, though you wouldn’t know that as a casual listener (she brings it up where there is a clear possibility of conflict of interest, or appearance of same). I think she usually does a good job. And FWIW, I’m pretty sure she is likely to be on a list of “problem nuns” in some file at the Vatican.
    Having said all that, I would like her to expand on her idea of what constitutes a “radical atheist” – perhaps it is one that doesn’t keep his/her yap shut?

  • apo calypse

    Shamanism is the only religion
    that is genetically determined AND CANNOT BE LEARNED AT ALL.

    Shamans are poor children
    becoming schizophrenic by age 10, but then are able to heal themselves
    completely — and thereby becoming extremely strong.

    Unlike recent agrarian
    (“hypersocial”) religions that always have to be learned in addition
    and therefore are quite stupid, corrupted and primitive, i.e., religions like
    Judaism and its infinite stubborn followers – jews => Christians =>
    muslims => protestants => capitalists => Marxists-communists =>
    Nazis => Hollywood etc. etc. etc.

    Thanks to me in the costume of
    the old Anatolian moon god Men, the world has not ended on December 21, 2012:

    youtube.com/watch?v=T6UGAeSy-N0

    With this my performance in the
    cathedral of Carcassonne on December 20, 2012, I have saved the world — by
    fighting off the aliens who were just about to land on earth near Bugarach in
    order to exterminate this world on December 21. Only the strongest magicians are
    able to do such things as I have done:

    youtube.com/watch?v=XlbCP92XMEM


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