Alain de Botton on what atheists can learn from religion

My father sent me an article on CNN that almost made me throw up all over the baby I was eating.  It’s from Alain de Botton, the author of Religion for Atheists.  It’s horrible.  Seriously horrible.

Get comfy and pack a lunch.  There’s a lot of bullshit to dig through in this article, so it’s going to take a while.

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

Yup, it’s a pretty boring question.  It’s boring because one side has all (not some) of the evidence.  The question is settled, and would be in the mind of the populace if not for people thinking that circumventing the evidence with faith is noble instead of embarassing.

You know who does give a shit if religion is true?  Religious people.  You know, the mobs who have had a fair amount of success pushing through legislation ensuring that all citizens are bound by the laws of their religion.  Try telling them how irrelevant the truth of Jesus ascension is.

The question of whether or not religion is true, while boring, is an extremely relevant question – perhaps the most relevant question.  I argue that in order to be a moral person you must care about what is true.

But Alain says otherwise.

“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.”

Yes, because saying “those beliefs are wrong, and wrong beliefs often produce behavior that is antithetical to happiness in the real world” is so fanatical.

Let’s nix a double standard on fanaticism real quick.  When people get fanatical about atheism, they write blogs and tell people they’re wrong.  When people get fanatical about their religion they often oppose equal rights, seek to keep others less knowledgeable by opposing science, and even occasionally fly planes into buildings.  To equate passionate atheists with the fanatics of faith is insulting and wrong.

And also, fanatical believers are a small minority?  Do you really think Rick Santorum is leading the Republican primaries because his policies are sound, or because a LOT of people think he’s the most devout Christian of them all?

“The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t.”

Easy answer: people should stop believing god exists if it’s clear 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.”

Religions can be interesting insofar as fiction is entertaining and some beliefs, no matter how inaccurate, can be comforting.  Of course, religion is not the only source of comfort nor is it the best source.  There are also ways to be entertained that don’t come bound to holding onto failed beliefs as though they were true.

But religion is absolutely, positively, without qualification NOT useful.  It can be the motivation for good deeds, but that motivation cannot be had without also tainting one’s mind with erroneous beliefs.  There is motivation for good deeds that doesn’t require the sacrifice of our good sense.  Religion is only useful for weening us off of more noble motivations for compassion and ethics.  This is important, because contrary to what Alain de Botton thinks, the truth does matter.

“One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.”

The hell?  I’m really not sure where he’s going with this.  Atheists can deliver passionate speeches, we can promote a spirit of community, and we can appreciate art and architecture.  These are all secular things.  I have no idea why Alain thinks religion owns the deed to these such that we need to borrow them.

And religion promotes morality?  I sure as hell hope he’s joking.  First, take the Abrahamic faiths (the kind that are far and away the most prevalent here in the United States) and read their holy books.  Those things are saturated with moral ideas so foul they’d make Dexter recoil in horror.  Kill people for working on the sabbath, kill men who sleep with men, slay apostates without pause, and worse – it’s all there.  Hell, the very idea that somebody could burn in hell for their honest opinion is the pinnacle of immorality.  There are plenty of people who have opposed equal rights for non-whites, women, gays, and pretty much any other conceivable out group out of love for scripture.  To say that religion, particular Christianity, sucks at promoting morality would make me a master of understatement.

The rebuttal will be that there are believers who are considerate of others despite their faith.  These are the faithful who treat the bible as a book of ignorable ideas from a bygone age, incompatible with modern life except for the bits about Jesus, heaven, and hell.  While less worrisome than the people who believe every word of the bible, these moderate believers are also immoral because reason is a moral obligation that is abandoned the minute somebody picks up faith.  If you have good intentions, you have an obligation to yourself and others to map out the truth to the best of your ability to make sure that your intentions are borne out in reality.  This is how you avoid praying your child to death even though you love them and want them to get better.  It’s how you don’t wind up creating more teen suicides because you love the sinner, hate the sin.  By holding less malicious, but equally ridiculous beliefs for the same reasons as the nutters (faith), the moderates are lending endorsement and defense to the forces of unreason, which is the life blood of religion’s monstrosities.  If you are failing to be reasonable to the best of your abilities, and if you are telling others they don’t have to be rational in formulating their beliefs, you are failing your moral obligations – and this is a failure of literally every person who believes anything on faith.

“In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.”

Fundamentalists of secular varieties?  How loudly must one shout “People don’t rise from the dead!” to become a fundamentalist on par with Fred Phelps?

And we must display reverence for religious rituals and concepts?  Name one that deserves it.

“We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.”

History is rife with examples for how religion is a shitty way to promote societal harmony.  From the Inquisition (kill those who do not believe like us!) to modern examples like Jessica Ahlquist (and all the people who made her life hell because they really do believe in heaven, hell, and a wrathful god), religion has always been an instrument for uniting those in the in group.  The problem is that it unites them against the out group, which is the opposite of societal harmony.

“And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

There are better ways to cope than lying to ourselves.  How about actually facing our problems head on and doing something instead of imagining that some invisible being will do the work for us?  To give one’s problems over to the lord is indistinguishable from pretending they’re not there and not working to make them better.  That behavior should be shameful, not comforting.

“The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

Name one.

“Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.”

Name one.

“Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with. We have grown frightened of the word morality.”

Oh piss off with your condescension, Alain.  We are not frightened of the word morality – we’re disgusted with how it gets co-opted by the faithful to mean obedience to ancient dogma rather than what promotes the most good for society.

“We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon.”

Because they’re boring and full of wrong.  Most atheists would jump at the chance to hear an astronomy lecture.  This should tell you more about the value of sermons than the emptiness of atheists.

“We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission.”

You really don’t think atheists appreciate art?  Seriously?  I’m an atheist for a living who was once an opera singer.  My boss has a degree in bassoon performance.  You know how that’s possible?  Because the drive to create and appreciate art are human qualities, not religious ones.

“We don’t go on pilgrimages.”

Because those sites are not holy to us, and they’re less fun than Disney World.  We go on vacations.

“We can’t build temples.”

We could, but for us buildings that are both incredibly expensive and functionally derelict are not high on our priority list.

“We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.”

It would be hard to conceive a statement more transparently wrong that also reveals the nature of the person saying it.  I suppose Alain has never said “thank you” to somebody.

“We resist mental exercises.”

We have 93% of the members of the National Academy of Science.  And are you really giving the people who view an unknown and just shrug their shoulders and say “god did it” credit for steadfast mental exercise?  The biggest workout the faithful get are the psychological gymnastics they employ to evade the evidence, and that’s not a quality humankind should be eager to adopt.

“We are presented with an unpleasant choice between either committing to peculiar concepts about immaterial deities or letting go entirely of a host of consoling, subtle or just charming rituals for which we struggle to find equivalents in secular society.”

Once you realize that it’s false, religion stops being consoling.  Nobody is consoled by what they don’t believe is true.

And why do we need substitutes for religion’s rituals in society?  I suspect we’d get by just fine without communion, for example.  We could play basketball together, clean a highway, play fucking bingo.  All of those create comaraderie without ensuring we believe absurd things about the universe.

“Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have.”

…he says to the victims of 9/11.

Ambition to change the world is not the province of religion!  Look at the ways secular thought has changed the world!  Just yesterday I was sending messages to Greta Christina while she was almost 2,000 miles away on a device that fits in my pocket!  I was warning her that I noticed the skies were turbulent while I was carried 35,000 feet above the ground, making a two-hour-long journey that would’ve taken Jesus and his apostles months, if not years.  I was preparing her for when she was going to be on my side of the freaking country later that day!

On this day I did not have to toil in the field or on the hunt in order to eat that night because science can feed billions.  I took a handful of pills that morning to help me to manage the abnormalities in my brain (thanks, god) that are the product of secular mental exercise.  I drank water without fear of contracting disease.  None of these powers were granted by the contents of scripture.  They are the result of human intellect, and they’re true for religious and atheist alike.  You can’t get more secular than that.  You want to talk about changing the world?  You need to be talking about human intelligence and of tackling our problems ourselves rather than giving them over to god.

Even the religious people who contributed to these discoveries were using secular methods.  The mathematical discoveries of Blaise Pascal, for instance, are secular models despite Pascal’s Christianity.

“They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture — a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history.”

Yes, religions have theories on ethics.  Sadly, frequently those theories are rancid.  When their theories of ethics have landed them on sensible conclusions, they are confirmed to be sensible only by secular reason.  For instance, the golden rule is not good because it’s found in the bible, it’s good because it produces a happier world and a better life for those who abide by it, which it would do with or without the bible.  At best religions can sometimes get us to reasonable moral conclusion through unreasonable means.  That means that at best religious people are still abdicating their moral responsibility to be reasonable.

And how has religion affected education?  If you have people suppressing the teaching of science you can practically bet your life they’re doing it because science conflicts with their religion.  Religious people have contributed to our understanding of the world, but those contributions are hardly the property of religion.  To my eye, religion hasn’t taught us anything worthwhile, and if it has, de Botton sure doesn’t lift a finger to tell us specifically where it has.  We just have a lot of nebulous “religion has given us good stuff” without telling us what that good stuff is.  I call shenanigans.

And religion has contributed to fashion?  Because the burka is so in this year.

“For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerized by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.”

Religions really are great at spreading ideas.  The Inquisition worked really well for spreading the idea that their religion was true.  The Catholic church spread the idea of heliocentrism in the same vein: by burning scholars at the stake for speculating otherwise and even protected the idea by placing Galileo under house arrest.  Threats are a good way to spread ideas, though they don’t really jibe with de Botton’s idea of religion as an ethical tonic.  Alain may be mesmerized at religion’s ability to spread, but I’m repulsed.

The problem is that while religion kicks ass at spreading ideas, they unfortunately suffer from the same problems as Alain de Botton: they’re abysmal at caring about whether or not those ideas are true.  So while they’re good at getting their beliefs across, religions, being built upon dogma, are poison to knowledge, and thus are not conducive to education.

“Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.”

You’ve got it wrong, Alain: religions are too silly, wrong, and dangerous to be counted as anything but humanity’s enemy.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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