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.
My own posts on the possibilities and pitfalls for reclaiming practices presently associated with religion include the following:
My own criticisms of de Botton’s book are developed in the posts: